LOST IN TRANSLATION:
THE QUEENS OF BEOWULF
LAURA ANN HORTON-DEPASS
B.A., University of Iowa, 1992
M.Ed., DePaul University, 2001
A thesis submitted to the
Faculty of the Graduate School of the
University of Colorado in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
LAURA ANN HORTON-DEPASS
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
The thesis for the Master of Arts degree by
Laura Ann Horton-DePass
has been approved for the
Department of English
Nancy Ciccone, Chair
Eliot K. Wilson
12 April 2013
Horton-DePass, Laura Ann
Lost in Translation: The Queens of Beowulf
Thesis directed by Professor Nancy Ciccone
The poem Beowulf has been translated hundreds of times, in part or in whole. In past
decades translators such as Howell Chickering and E. Talbot Donaldson firmly adhered to
formal equivalency, following the original text line-by-line if not word-by-word. Such
translations are useful for Anglo-Saxon students but cannot reach a larger audience because
they are unwieldy and often incomprehensible. In the past fifty years, though, a group of
translators with different philosophies has taken up the task of translating the poem with
greater success. Translators such as Marc Hudson, Edwin Morgan, and Seamus Heaney
used dynamic equivalency for their versions, eschewing strict grammatical accuracy and
literal diction in order to recreate the sense and experience of the poem for a modern
audience. How two translators, E. Talbot Donaldson and Seamus Heaney, treat the queens
in the poem as revealed by a close textual analysis proves to be an excellent example of the
two methodologies; formal equivalence translators do not endow their female characters
with the agency and respect present in the original text, while dynamic equivalence
translators take liberties with the language to give their readers a strong sense of the
powerful but tragic queen figures. Harold Bloom's theory of the development of poets in
The Anxiety of Influence can help explain this shift from formal equivalency to dynamic
equivalency. Translators of Beowulf necessarily react against their predecessors, and since
translators usually explain their process and philosophy in forwards or introductions, their
motivations for "swerving away" are clear. Formal equivalence translators misrepresented
the original text by devaluing the literary merit of the original poem and dynamic
equivalence translators seek to remedy the misrepresentation by elaborating and expanding
the language of the original to reach a wider audience. Each generation must continue to
translate against the grain of its predecessors in order to keep the poem alive for a larger
audience so that the poem will continue to be enjoyed by future audiences.
The form and content of this abstract are approved. I recommend publication.
Approved: Nancy Ciccone
Thanks to Nancy Ciccone and Eliot Wilson for their patience and willingness to consider
my scattered and oftentimes incomprehensible ideas.
And thanks to my special men, Robert Bruce Horton, Christopher Horton-DePass, and
Robert Bruce Horton-DePass, for their love and support.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
I. INTRODUCTION 1
II. FEMINIST CRITICISM 6
III. KLAEBER'S "KIND" WEALHpEOW 21
IV. TRANSLATION METHODOLOGIES 30
V. HISTORY OF TRANSLATIONS OF BEOWULF 49
VI. THE QUEENS: TEXT ANALYSIS 62
VII. BLOOM 88
VIII. CONCLUSION 90
When Beowulf first arrives to the Danish shore with his troop of armed warriors,
he is of course challenged by Hroogar's sentinel to state his purpose. This delicate
situation could end in violence or in welcome depending on Beowulf s reaction. The text
of line 259 reads:
Werodes wlsa, word-hord onleac:
The leader of the band unlocked his word-hoard. Beowulf has been silent to this point,
but now he must speak eloquently to avoid trouble; word-hord implies that his language is
like a beautiful treasure that is locked away and only brought out in times of need. And
the language of Beowulf 'is indeed beautiful — the metaphor suits not only the situation at
hand but also the poem as a whole, a work of art comprised of beautiful language.
Beowulf was not always thought to be a masterful work of art, though — for a long
time it was not part of the canon because it was thought to be primitive or only of passing
historical significance to scholars. Translators with a view only for history did not unlock
their word-hord; they created translations that did not consider the poem as literature, but
rather emphasized historical aspects. Such translations are dull and lackluster, full of
footnotes, adopting a literalness that is not reminiscent of the original poem's depth and
figurative language. Although such translators may have stayed true to the word and the
line of the original, they were unfaithful to the unity of the poem as a work of art.
It was only when translators began to emphasize the artistic merits of Beowulf that
we see the poem come alive again. Translators such as Edwin Morgan and Seamus Heaney
unlocked their word-hoards to translate the poem not word-for-word but by creatively
adjusting lines and words and meanings in order to transmit the original sense of the poem
to a modern audience. By focusing on the queens of Beowulf and how translators treated
them, we can see the effect of the difference in translation theories; formal equivalence
translators, who generally value formal equivalency or line-by-line translation, tend to
translate the queens as two-dimensional and ornamental, while dynamic equivalence
Beowulf s reputation will be discussed in Chapter VII. Tolkien's article "The Monsters and
the Critics" outlines how the poem was underestimated for years.
translators, who implement a less exacting grammatical translation method, represent the
queens as strong, politically astute women who play an essential role in the poem.
The purpose of translating Beowulf for these two groups of translators differs. Older
formal equivalence translations were meant for students as a crib for translation or for the
study of the poem, leaving interpretation out of the text and placing context in footnotes.
More recent dynamic equivalence translators create versions for a larger audience, and so
place context in the lines themselves, although doing so means veering away from a line-
by-line translation. A greater focus on the poetry and aesthetics of the poem also demands
changes to the diction and syntax of the original lines. The result is a translation that
displays the possibilities in the figurative language of the original text, instead of hiding
them in a footnote.
This thesis begins by reviewing the feminist criticism of the female characters to
establish that the Beowulf queens are women of position and stature and to show the
importance of their roles both in the poem and in the culture. In chapter IV I discuss
different translation theories and their impact on Beowulf. Chapter V is an overview of the
translation philosophies of translators of Beowulf, formal equivalence translators have quite
a different view of what the role of a translator should be that the dynamic equivalence
translators. I then focus in on two translators that can serve as representatives of their
respective disciplines: E. Talbot Donaldson's prose translation was the version used in the
Norton Critical Edition for decades, until Seamus Heaney's 4-stress verse translation was
commissioned to replace it. Since the Norton Critical Edition is the obligatory book for
many readers and students, these translators are an excellent gauge; Donaldson and Heaney
embody the changing attitude of translating Beowulf. In chapter VI I closely read the
original text and compare it to Donaldson's and Heaney's translations to show how a
collection of minor translation decisions change the characterization of female characters,
and thus the tenor of the poem.
Finally, in Chapter VII I suggest a reason for the shift in translation approaches by
using Harold Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence. Bloom's theory of the development of
strong poets relies on Freud's universal Oedipal Complex theory, in which the son desires
to kill his father and love his mother in order to mature. Bloom's application of this theory
of the development of poets can also apply to the translators of Beowulf who similarly
create literature through language and also seek to develop their own identities as
translators by reacting against their predecessors.
The difficulty in analyzing Beowulf comes from the muddiness of its provenance — it
is a Germanic tale that was "Christianized" and written down by two medieval scribes. Only
one original copy exists. We cannot know the intentions of the creator(s) of the tale or of
the scribes/monks who decided to put the oral poem on paper. We, like the translators,
can only guess at what the poem means, guided by the language itself. Those more skilled
in the use of language to create meaning and who are familiar with both medieval and
Germanic cultures will be more able to glean the figurative language and possible meanings
of the poem. Because of their different agendas, the metaphor of "unlocking a word-
hoard" is more resonant to a dynamic equivalence translator than it is to a formal
equivalence translator, and the multiple layers of possibility of what the phrase can mean is
more of a joy to the former than to the latter. Thus, the Beowulf of a. dynamic equivalence
translator is more expressive and sensitive than the Beowulf of a. formal equivalence
"a more rounded picture is now emerging which gives the royal women of this period the
importance that they undoubtedly deserve" (Hill, Joyce 154)
One of the ways Beowulf has been translated into contemporary culture is as a
cartoon; there is an animated major motion picture loosely based on the poem. Angelina
Jolie provided the voice for Grendel's mother. Monsters and dragons will always have
appeal, I suppose, and there will always be those who will capitalize on them. Such
abridgement of the poem as is common in a movie removes one of the most important
elements, however; to cull whatever is not directly relevant to the main storyline, to remove
the digressions and allusion and historical context, reduces the poem to an easily-digested
adventure story worthy of a cartoon. If we read only with an eye for the arc of the story, we
miss the subtleties that make the poem great.
The poem's subtle arrangement is like a braid: John Leyerle compares the structure
of Beowulf to the interlace design common in Anglo-Saxon times (see app. I). The line of a
1 "Beowulf earned 197 million in 2007. The two hour animated feature by Paramount
Pictures was directed by Robert Zemeckis, screenplay by Neil Gaiman.
design curves around and moves forward only to fold back on itself and weave through
other strands. Although the whole of an interlace design may create a line or a letter or an
animal, the details of the design are not linear and seem difficult to follow. Likewise
within the structure of Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon texts:
Interlace appears so regularly on sculpture, jewellery, weapons, and in
manuscript illuminations that it is the dominant characteristic of this art.
There is clear evidence that a parallel technique of word-weaving was used
as a stylistic device in both Latin and Old English poems of the period.
This "word-weaving" is particularly noticeable in Beowulf. Historical events, stories, and
themes will pop up in one place and then submerge back into the interlace of the poem
only to reemerge later on, and close examination of each "strand" reveals relevance to the
whole of the poem. Each strand strengthens the interlace of the poem. Some strands are
often called digressions, but the term is inaccurate because although the stories and
histories interwoven into poem do not affect the main action, they place the story in a
larger context, and in doing so the poem becomes more significant that a mere adventure
story; it becomes a commentary on culture and the human experience. Comparisons,
explanations, and allusions create a larger space in the poem than merely Hroogar's hall and
Beowulf s homeland; readers can place the poem in the continuum of a complete world, and
so individual events in the poem have more resonance. Beowulf 'is called an epic poem
because it is about an entire culture.
One such strand that has been recklessly dismissed is that of the female characters.
There are only eleven women in the poem, and only five of those have names, all queens.
Only two women have agency in the main action of the poem, and we only hear
Wealhbeow speak. The one female character who directly affects the action in the poem is
Grendel's mother, but she is often interpreted as more monster than female. It is easy to
assume that since women were valued less than men historically, they also have little value
in the poem; indeed, before 1970 the female characters were often mere footnotes in
literary analysis of the poem. A closer examination of the position of women in the culture
of the story of Beowulf counters this assumption. The female characters are complex and
multidimensional. As women they have a subtlety necessary in a culture in which only men
are active, and the Beowulf poet uses them as necessary devices to the poem's elaborate
structure. If we were to take this strand out of the interlace, the poem would be weakened
significantly, as it was in many early scholarly translations.
1 J.R.R. Tolkien in his essay "The Monsters and the Critics" suggested that "It may turn
out to be no epic at all" (254). The point is debated by Beowulf scholars.
The female characters prove to be quite sophisticated and multi-faceted. They serve
both as rich characters unto themselves and also as symbols of larger issues and themes.
Stacy Klein asserts that:
Anglo-Saxon writers positioned legendary royal women in the midst of
texts that were designed to express their authors' views on the most
difficult and contentious issue of Anglo-Saxon society. And they did so, I
would argue, because these authors saw women as deeply affected by and
able to affect those issues. (195)
As participants in and often victims of complicated social issues of the culture, female
characters shed light on causes and ramifications of social norms. The female characters
signify much more than characters that bring the mead to the men.
Although past scholarship has ignorantly marginalized them as secondary
characters, the queens in Beowulf are indeed important to the poem in many ways. The
queens are mentioned throughout each section of the poem: "women are not excluded
from the world of Beowulf. They play important roles that are public and active rather than
merely private and passive" (Olsen 314). Characters such as Wealhbeow may not pick up a
sword and chop off Grendel's head, but her contribution to both the society of Heorot and
to the poem's meaning cannot be dismissed. They are both a powerful women with agency
and a representation of larger ideas, such as heroism and gender politics.
Germanic Women vs. Medieval Women
In 1805 Sharon Turner wrote in her book The History of Manners, Landed Property,
Governments, Laws, Poetry, Literature, Religion, and Language of the Anglo-Saxons about the
position of women in that society:
It is well known that the female sex were much more highly valued and more
respectfully treated by the barbarous Gothic nations than by the more polished
states of the East. Among the Anglo-Saxons they occupied the same important
and independent rank in society which they now enjoy. (108)
Turner goes on to explain the legal rights and social respect Anglo-Saxon women
possessed; she equated these women with women of her own age. At the time of her
writing, Beowulfhad yet to be translated into Modern English, but the knowledge of
women's place in that historical time was at hand to help guide any translator. Although
today we read the poem with our modern day culture, a medieval audience and a Germanic
audience would have read or heard the poem with a Germanic ideal of women. Women in
the Germanic tradition had even more status and held stronger positions in society than
their late medieval counterparts; the Germanic tradition of a woman's role was slowly
dissolving in Anglo-Saxon England. As Pat Belanoff of State University of New York
notes, the women in Beowulf compare to other characters from Germanic literature:
The long tradition lying behind the Anglo-Saxon female portrait becomes
evident when one looks at the women of Old Norse literature, which
preserves the earliest extant written versions of many stories common to
Germanic culture. These women are both intelligent and shining. (823)
The queens in Beowulf are indeed both wise and shining with gold. Wealhbeow is usually
described as shining in her gold (614, 640, 1163), and she is a wise counsel to Hroogar
Although the queens in Beowulfwere subject to arranged marriages with distant
tribes in order to forge bonds as peaceweavers, the role was neither passive nor simple.
According to Carol Parrish Jamison, "Early Germanic women had, in fact, a number of
possible responses to marital exchanges and could find ways to move well beyond the role
of object, asserting their influence as mothers and diplomats by king-making, or king-
breaking, in their new husbands' homes" (30). Their mere presence was not the bond of
peace: the queens had to actively negotiate the complex social fabric of dynasty and warring
nations within a new tribe. Their influence was great. Wealhbeow demands Hroogar
remember his own sons in succession, and Hygd offers the kingship to Beowulf instead of
her sons: "It is difficult to perceive Wealhbeow as an object: she has established a new
identity in her husband's hall, occupying a position that enables her to participate in king-
making decisions" Qamison). The queen is more of a political figure with her own power
than the hostess of Hroogar.
It is only later in history, after Beowulfwas written, that women began to be
marginalized by western Christianity. Belanoff reminds us that
Undoubtedly medieval Christianity drastically altered Anglo-Saxon society,
but its influence on the status of women was not immediately negative.
Such evidence as is available suggests that the full impact of the church's
antifeminist attitudes was not felt until after the Norman Conquest. (827)
If the original audience of Beowulf viewed the queens as characters worth consideration
beyond that of objects, it is disingenuous for any translator to instead recreate the
characters of the queens as passive and simple. Reading or translating the poem with the
assumption that women are sublimated and insignificant characters, one can dismiss the
female characters as secondary to the heroic tale; reading or translating with the Germanic
assumption that women hold a valued and complicated position in society, it becomes easy
to see how essential the queens are in the interlace of the epic.
Just as the Beowulf poet is a weaver of words and themes, the queens are weavers of
social relationships. Queens in the world of Beowulf had the difficult position of
peaceweavers. In a time when tribes warred with each other to gain lands and riches, the
marriage of the daughter of a leader into another tribe could create strong bonds; by
becoming family, treaties between tribes were strengthened. At least this was the idea. As
evidenced by Hildeburh and Hroogar's daughter Freawaru, marriage was no guarantee of
peace. Gillian Overing in her book Language, Sign, and Gender in Beowulf 'notes, "Peace-
weavers are assigned the role of creating peace in a culture where war and death are
privileged values. Female failure is built into this system" (82). If honor and bravery and
booty are the primary values of a culture, battle is inevitable because it is the only way to
gain them. Thus queens in this culture are innately tragic figures because they are destined
to fail. They can never fulfill their basic function within a tribe.
Wealhbeow is the model peaceweaver. As Hroogar's queen, her place is both
domestic and public at the same time. She must confirm her husband's elevated status and
work for the stability of the whole tribe, not just her dynasty. It is not a role for weak or
insignificant women, as Klein states: "Peaceweaving proceeds according to a logic that
demands that one redefine the place traditionally allotted to the domestic within a heroic
ethos. ..and recognize women as central forces, rather than marginal supports, in the
production of social order" (104). Wealhbeow negotiates peace not only between her tribe
of origin and her tribe by marriage, but she must keep the peace within the hall itself.
Queens had to keep the social fabric of the tribes from rending in a culture bent on
violence, yet they could not wield their power directly and openly like a king. Subtlety and
indirect action were necessary to keep the peace:
Her ways of achieving this goal within the tribe were several: she might
serve as wise counselor, all the time being close-mouthed about the counsel;
she might be "rum-hearted" with horses and treasures in rewarding the
valiant men of the tribe; and finally, she might distinguish among the men
of the tribe by first presenting the lord with mead and then passing the cup
to the ranking members of the duguth, or old retainers, and the geoguth, or
young retainers, as does Wealhtheow. (Chance 4)
Social protocol was the domain of the queens, and Wealhbeow is a crafty and graceful
wielder of the power of her position, as we will see in chapter VI.
In a culture in which violence and battle are so highly valued as in the heroic
culture of Beowulf, though, peaceweavers are ironically destined to fail. Klein notes the
difficulty of the position of the queens:
In a society in which peace is only effected through war and war is defined
as the rightful domain of men, weaving peace through female bodies would
seem to be theoretically impossible. Within such a culture, the female
peaceweaver can only symbolize peace that has been effected through the
actions of men, which may partly explain why... Wealhbeow always appears
after a battle has been concluded. (100)
Wealhbeow cannot create peace through direct action, but she can only try to head off
battle or manage the aftermath. Freawaru and Hildeburh are examples of peaceweavers in
Beowulf who could not succeed no matter how great their efforts. Hildeburh could not
prevent a battle between her original tribe and her husband's tribe, and so all the men
closest to her died. Beowulf predicts Freawaru's failure as a peaceweaver in her engagement
to the head of another tribe because he says men will not forget a perceived slight and will
want revenge when the honeymoon is over. We see Wealhbeow as a successful queen, but
we know from the historical interludes in the interlace of the story that most queens hold a
precarious position and may be doomed to failure no matter how skillful their weaving.
If we view the female characters through a Germanic lens, it is possible that the
queens are actually Valkyrie figures, according to Helen Damico in her book Beowulf s
Wealhtheow and the Valkyrie Tradition. Such characters in Norse mythology decide which
soldiers will die in battle, or they are lovers of heroes and daughters of royalty. Damico
compares the queens in Beowulf 'to Valkyrie figures in the Germanic tradition and finds
many parallels. Since it is probable that the story of Beowulf originated in a Germanic land
and then was brought to England to be written down in Anglo-Saxon after modifications
due to culture and Christianity, Valkyrie figures would be not only appropriate but also
expected. Reading the queens as Valkyrie figures, women with special powers or women
who guide men in battle, clearly gives them more power and complexity: "Wealhtheow,
rather than being an anomalous figure in the literature, not only is compatible with the
female warriors of Anglo-Saxon epic, Elene, Judith, and Juliana, but like them is in
harmony with the Valkyrie-brides of the Eddie lays" (Damico 86). Contemporary
audiences and even Anglo-Saxon audiences of Beowulf might not immediately make the
connection, but once the connection is made it becomes impossible to dismiss the queens
as extraneous. The parallels are interesting:
As drink-bearing welcoming figures in environments that are redolent of
past and future violence, they evoke the idea of the transience of present
merriment and pleasure. In their metallic resplendence, they may be seen as
embodiments of the intoxicating beauty of gold and the possible destruction
it brings to those who seek it. And as possessors of consummate necklaces
with erotic and religious potency, they represent two forces of human
experience that impel men to action and alter their personalities. (Damico
Wealhbeow is described as goldhroden, arrayed in gold (614, 640), and she is first seen
passing mead to the men in the hall in order of precedence (615). She gives Beowulf a
necklace (1216) and exhorts both Beowulf and Hroogar to remember and protect her sons.
As Damico points out such similarities, one cannot help but see Wealhbeow and other
queens in new light.
New Idea of Heroism
The queens and the feminine voice could also represent a new ideal of heroism. In
the heroic age, heroism of course involved feats of strength and courage. Direct, violent
action was rewarded with glory and spoils. Men were successful in this culture if they
could prove themselves in battle, and a death from battle was considered a good death. In
Beowulf the men accept this protocol, but the poem does not glorify the heroic culture,
according to Klein:
queens serve as a means for the Beowulf 'poet to redefine an old and outdated
model of heroism... the poem urges readers to focus on the costs rather than
the glories of the traditional heroic code of violent action and to adopt the
view of those members of society, such as women and aged men, who were
unable to participate fully in that code. (196)
The women and even Hroogar are passive and yet still seen as worthy of respect and
admiration. Both Hroogar and Wealhbeow are equally unable to save their hall, yet we do
not fault them for it. In addition, the Beowulf poet shows Wealhbeow doing more and
taking more direct action with her words and gifts among the men than Hroogar does.
Wealhbeow provides an alternative example of success to that of violent battle, representing
the Christian version of heroism: turn the other cheek and live a good life, and salvation
will be the reward instead of gold.
Since Beowulf 'is a Christian retelling of a Norse tale, it makes sense that the poet
would superimpose a different set of cultural values on the Germanic story in a way that
does not change the storyline, and the feminine characters easily provide a new, Christian
ideal of heroism. The poem is not a battle of man-against-man, but of culture against
monsters. To act in a correct manner and support the tribe become much more important
than a might-makes-right mentality, and the feminine characters are perfect examples of
this new ideal of heroic success:
To move a figure, image, or idea into a new textual arena is necessarily to
transform it. As the Beowulf poet mobilizes feminine voices to prescribe a
new model of heroism premised on turning the violent energies of heroic
self-assertion inward and waging battles against one's inner vices rather than
against human foes, the very nature of such entrenched heroic ideas as
"battle," "enemy," and "hero" undergo significant shifts to the point where
"heroic," as either generic category or cultural code, becomes almost
unrecognizable. (Klein 89)
The poem is not merely a gory tale of a bloody battle; there are consequences to be had
from battle for which no amount of gold can compensate. A man-against-man conflict,
such as the ones described in the history and stories within the tale, is tragic; man against
monster, Beowulf against Grendel, is adventurous and romantic. The poet or scribe
composed a cautionary tale for his medieval Christian audience: "What the feminine voices
of the poem do is gesture toward the possibility of a new model of heroism that redefines,
and incorporates the energies of, preconversion Germanic heroism so as to being it more
closely in line with the Christian worldview of the poem's readers" (Klein 88-89). The
queens weave peace even in the face of impending battle between tribes, and it is their
attempt to preserve culture that makes them heroic, as opposed to success in battle that is
destructive to culture.
Archetypes: Eve, Mary, Dual Mother
The queens in Beowulfwere molded by the Beowulf 'poet or by the medieval scribes
from classic archetypes, making them more than characters in a story — they work as
examples of ideals of women in medieval culture. Queens either follow the archetype of
Mary or Eve from the Bible, or, like Grendel's mother, become a parody as the inversion of
Mary, according to Jane Chance. Because of the plight of peace-weaver as discussed
previously, women in medieval tales often are seen as a mournful woman archetype,
discussed by Joyce Hill. Grendel's mother and Wealhbeow together can be seen as Jung's
idea of the archetype of the dual mother, according to Jeffrey Helterman. Enough scholars
have studied female medieval characters as archetypes that it is clear the function of the
queens in Beowulf 'is culturally significant.
The precarious and tragic position of peaceweavers is an important example of an
archetype of medieval literature: the grieving woman. Joyce Hill explains, "In heroic
poetry... the dominant stereotype is that ofthegeomuru ides [sad or mournful woman]"
(154). Hildeburh and the woman who mourns at Beowulf s funeral are examples, and we
know from digressions that other queens will soon become mournful because of their
situations. Women in cultures of violence and battle are usually victims, no matter how
much indirect power they have: "the female (is) a figure of inaction and isolation, a victim
of the destructive forces of "heroism," and a witness to the degradation of treasure — and of
human (female) life — to the level of mere plunder" (Hill 161). Women survive the battle
but mourn for their loved ones, women are stolen and given and traded without their
consent, and women are subject to the male-centric culture of the heroic age, but this does
not mean that female characters should be likewise sublimated because their tragic stories
make them essential to the literary unity of the poem. Removing the female characters
would result in a loss of tragic stories that are juxtaposed to the adventure story of
monsters and a dragon; a human vs. monster story is put into perspective when compared
to the human vs. human conflicts that occur on the edges of the poem. The mournful
queens have heartbreaking stories that shed light on heroic culture; as survivors, they are
harbingers of cautionary tales:
The heroic code puts a premium on action and physical aggression and takes
as indicators of power success in war and the acquisition of treasure, often
by brutal means. But in the Old English tradition the consequences of such
a code also stand revealed and it is partly through the female figures that
this revelation is achieved... the sophistication of certain Anglo-Saxon poets'
responses to that legendary material give woman a position of ethical and
imaginative importance. (Hill 166)
It is because the women have reason to be mournful that they are complex and interesting
figures. Their stories reveal complications and issues of the heroic culture, making them
essential literary figures. The queens' sad stories give them depth of character.
Of course, in the Christian world of medieval England, there are no more important
women than Mary and Eve. All women would strive to emulate the Madonna and not
Eve — woman as instigator of original sin would serve as a cautionary tale. The queens in
Beowulf likewise follow these common archetypes, explains Chance: "Anglo-Saxon woman's
ideal secular role as peace-weaver or peace pledge was analogous to the Virgin's role as
intermediary between man and God; in addition, the Virgin perfected all the secular roles
available to women — maiden, wife, mother, virago" (65). Wealhbeow gracefully and gently
intervenes to keep peace in the hall, much like Mary, who can keep peace between man and
god. Freawaru, Hygd, and Hildeburh are also Mary-like because of their gentle demeanor;
passive, obedient stance; and their support of the culture of the hall as positions as peace-
pledges. The opposite example is Modbryoo, who instead of keeping the peace causes
chaos, much like Eve: "For queens who did not remain chaste and acquiescent, there was a
different model, one also found in the Bible — Eve" (Chance 65). Modbryoo was anything
but acquiescent in the beginning of her digression, but eventually becomes more Madonna-
like after marriage to Offa once she has a lord husband (1952). The situation is parallel to
man's reconciliation to god through Jesus. An Anglo-Saxon audience would be familiar
with both types of women and know how to consider each queen in the story by her
An interesting archetypal example in Beowulf 'is Grendel's mother because she is
actually the inversion of the Mary archetype. Although her status as a woman is sure
because she is a mother and is described as ides, or royal woman, she is also described as a
monster. Chance explains why: "Such a woman might be wretched or monstrous to an
Anglo-Saxon audience because she blurs the sexual and social categories of roles. For
example she abrogates to herself the masculine role of the warrior or lord" (97). Since
Grendel's mother exacts revenge on her son and fights Beowulf, both the actions of male
warriors, she is an unnatural queen; she does not conform to the cultural standards and
protocols of women and queens. Grendel's mother is a foil to Wealhbeow, who is the
perfect queen based on a Mary character: "Grendel's mother.. .is used as a parodic inversion
of both the Anglo-Saxon queen and mother, the ideal of which was embodies in the Virgin
Mary" (Chance 97). The Beowulf 'poet examines what it means to be a woman and a queen
through the character of Grendel's mother; to be Madonna-like is admirable, and to be the
opposite is monstrous and evil. The queens represent the ideal of womanhood in medieval
culture, and the anti-queen is the antithesis of womanhood.
Another way of considering Wealhbeow and Grendel's mother is as Jung's idea of
the 'dual mother" since they are clear foils. Jeffrey Helterman explains that "Wealhbeow
and Grendel's mother together form what Jung calls the dual mother" (13). The dual
mother has two sides that together comprise a universal power, the nurturing, life-
affirming side and the destructive, devouring side: "Wealhtheow represents woman in her
ideal role as freothowebbe (peaceweaver)... Grendel's mother symbolizes the feud aspect of the
web of peace" (Helterman 14). Wealhbeow is so nurturing and Grendel's mother is so
destructive that together they represent the spectrum of motherly existence. Wealhbeow
makes everyone welcome in her hall and Grendel's mother attacks Beowulf in her hall;
With her words, Wealhbeow makes sure her sons are taken care of after Hroogar dies, and
Grendel's mother gains revenge for her son's death with her claws and strength. Both have
important identities as mothers, but they go about their mothering in opposite manners
that exemplify Jung's idea of the dual mother.
Each of the archetypes can be seen clearly in the queens of Beowulf, and because of
this we know that the queens function as more than individual characters who support the
men; they serve as cultural indicators in the medieval age, and they raise important
questions as to what the role of queens is and should be in the heroic age.
The Beowulf poet constructed the female characters in a way that raises questions
about the nature of the feminine and the masculine. Wealhbeow, Hildeburh, and Freawaru
are examples of women who are feminine, but Modbryoo and Grendel's mother are
examples of masculine women, suggesting that sex and gender are not necessarily linked.
Although Grendel's mother is a foe to Heorot and Modbryoo is discussed as a royal woman
who behaved inappropriately, both characters are worthy of respect and awe because of their
power. Hroogar, an elderly lord, is distinctly feminine; he cannot challenge Grendel
himself, but allows Beowulf to fight his battle while he stays safe in his hall with the
women. Characters either fight or influence: to be masculine is to take direct action and to
be feminine is to be passive in this heroic age, but the Beowulf poet does not necessarily
link these gender characteristics to biological sex.
Modbryoo is a prime example of a masculine woman. Mary Dockray-Miller notes
that Modbryoo takes control of her life in a world where women have little control:
(Modthrytho) cannot merely be dismissed as an evil queen who becomes
good after marrying the right man... her character both confirms and denies
a masculine economy that depends on women as
commodities... Modthrytho's masculine performance manages to subvert the
usual use of women as objects in exchanges between men. ("Women")
She is not punished for her masculine actions of killing men who look at her; although she
is not an ideal queen because of her peace-rending instead of peace-weaving, Modbryoo is
given a chance to become a good wife and proper queen, which she accepts. Dockray-
Miller points out, though, that the diction the poet uses for Modbryoo's position as a
queen is still active instead of passive ("Women").
Grendel's mother is perhaps more complex than the other queens because she is
described as both a woman and a monster. She is a grieving mother who has lost her son;
although she takes revenge, which is a masculine role, her mother's grief is a woman's grief.
As noted before, she is constructed as the inverse of a proper queen: she takes revenge
instead of peaceweaving, she is active instead of passive. By not acting as a queen should in
almost every action, Grendel's mother raises questions as to what a woman should be: is a
woman with masculine characteristics monstrous or sympathetic?
Although all these specific points in feminist criticism of Beowulf can be debated,
the point is that these female characters all have the potential for analysis. Two-
dimensional characters do not. The queens were written and developed to have complex
characters that resonate for an original or modern readership, and to translate them as
insignificant characters because they are not involved in the adventure aspects of the story is
KLAEBER'S "KIND" WEALHpEOW
Since most readers of Beowulf come to the story through a translator, readers accept
the translator's attitudes towards the female characters as presented in subtleties of diction,
syntax, and poetic device. A translator's own culture can have significant influence over his
or her translation. Josephine Bloomfield of Ohio University analyses Frederick Klaeber's
translation of Wealhbeow and finds that his own cultural biases toward women colored his
interpretation. Klaeber was considered one of the world's leading experts on Beowulf, and
his translations completed in the early 1900s were considered the most important and
accurate. His translation was very influential to scholars and students. Yet, as Bloomfield
notes, his version gives short shrift to Wealhbeow because he translates most adjectives
describing her as "kind:"
we see Wealhtheow's motivations regulated and her role transformed from
peace weaver and power broker to tender maternal care-giver: her messages
lost political significance and her deep understanding of tribal ritual
becomes muted as her relationship with her husband and sons is altered by
this series of uniform glosses to emphasize personal affection over tribal
Through the choice of a single word, Wealhbeow's character is marginalized and the
position of a queen is minimized. Klaeber's mistranslation changes the interlace of the
storyline to mirror gender roles of "nineteenth-century German bourgeois culture" (203);
Klaeber "seems to have imposed concepts and relationships on the text — particularly in the
areas of kingship, family, and gender roles — that cannot be found in the source text or the
source culture" (184). The story of Beowulf 'may be part Anglo-Saxon and part Germanic,
but it is not modern German, and to change characterization to fit the reader's own culture
is unfortunate. Characters' identities should withstand any translation. Klaeber may have
done this inadvertently, but the effect of his misreading changes the storyline and meaning
The power of the translator is this great, that a single word mistranslated can have
such an effect. Translators must walk a fine line between making a text accessible for a
modern receptor audience and staying true to the author's intent, and every choice a
translator makes for a text as old as Beowulfveers one way or the other. Sometimes choices
marginalize the female characters, but in more recent times translators have deliberately
made choices that might not adhere to the Anglo-Saxon grammar or syntax, but that
definitely characterize the queens as they were written in Anglo-Saxon.
Klaeber is not alone in his tendency to recreate characters in translation according
to his own cultural beliefs. He changed adjectives so Wealhbeow would represent women
of his own time: kind and maternal. Other translators refused to change anything,
resulting in a literal translation that cannot represent the artistry in a poem. A literal
translation of a poem so rich in figurative language cannot fully express the multi-layered
meanings that make the poem great.
An old adage concerning translation goes: translations are like women; they are
either beautiful or faithful. Sexism aside, the sentiment expresses the translator's dilemma,
especially the translator of poetry; should the translator aim for the precision of a line-by-
line translation, or should the translator sacrifice exact content for the overall sense of the
poem? Is content more important than aesthetics, form and poetic device? A poem's
meaning is inextricably linked to its form and poetic device, and Beowulf 'is no exception.
Since languages differ not only in vocabulary but also in grammatical structure and syntax,
not to mention cultural innuendo and cultural assumptions in background knowledge, no
translation will ever achieve perfection. As Eugene Nida, an expert in the field of
translation studies, notes, "The total impact of a translation may be reasonably close to the
original, but there can be no identity in detail" (153). Something will always be lost, and
the translator's main task is to decide what can be sacrificed and what is essential to the
poem's transmission to another culture.
J.R.R. Tolkien argues that any translation of Beowulf could not match the beauty of
the original, could not be transmitted to Modern English, and he makes a good point. The
form, story, and language of the poem work together in Anglo-Saxon in a way that cannot
be exactly reproduced in Modern English. Tolkien notes:
No translation that aims at being readable in itself can, without elaborate
annotation, proper to an edition of the original, indicate all the possibilities
or hints afforded by the text. It is not possible, for instance, in translation
always to represent a recurring work in the original by one given modern
work. Yet the recurrence may be important. ("On Translating")
Since no translation could do the poem justice, Tolkien believes, the only acceptable
pretext for translating would be "to provide an aid to study." Otherwise, a translator is
rewriting the poem, not translating it. Yet Tolkien wanted readers to learn Anglo-Saxon
to fully appreciate Beowulf. Access to the poem therefore would be limited to scholars, and
the text would remain almost as arcane as it was when discovered. Tolkien's assumptions
are not practical today.
Tolkien appreciated the beauty of Beowulf as a work of literature, one that could not
be rendered into another language because it is a work of art. He respected the poetry:
And therein lies the unrecapturable magic of ancient English verse for those
who have ears to hear: profound feeling, and poignant vision, filled with the
beauty and mortality of the world, are aroused by brief phrases, light
1 Tolkien, instead of translating the text he adored, instead used Beowulf as the
inspiration for his own fantastical tale, The Lord of the Rings. The character Gollum
resembles Grendel, and, of course, there is the dragon with his hoard in each text.
touches, short words resounding like harp-strings sharply plucked. ("On
The poem's language is indeed condensed and symbolic and resonant, and few people in
Tolkien's time appreciated its beauty. In his article "The Monsters and the Critics,"
Tolkien lambasts previous critics for only considering Beowulf important as a historical
document and rejecting any notion of the poem as art since the critics did not hear the
music of Tolkien's harp string, and so he subtly equated the critics with monsters in the
title of his article. Tolkien did not like the way scholars treated the poem, both in study
and in translation because no version at that time addressed the artistic beauty of Beowulf as
a piece of art.
Tolkien mentioned in as late as 1936 that Beowulf 'was only a curiosity for scholars:
"Beowulf has been used as a quarry of fact and fancy more assiduously than it has been
studied as a work of art.. .it is as an historical document that it has mainly been examined
and dissected" (246). Tolkien lists the criticisms of many decades, including calling the
poem "primitive," "feeble," "a wild folk-tale," "rude and rough," "weak in construction,"
"thin and cheap," "a burden to English syllabuses," and "the confused product of a
committee of muddle-headed and probably beer-bemused Anglo-Saxons" (249). Although
the poem had some admirers, it was not considered the masterpiece of literature it is today.
Beowulf was widely misunderstood, misread, and abused in translation.
The beauty of Beowulf can only be realized by those knowledgeable about medieval
culture, otherwise it would indeed seem primitive. But the translator of any dead language
such as Anglo-Saxon has a dilemma that is compounded by limited knowledge of the
ancient culture. We have a few texts from Medieval England in Latin or Anglo-Saxon and
can therefore hypothesize about the culture of that time, but our knowledge is limited, and
the average reader does not know much about this time period that is so different from our
own. For example, the Anglo-Saxon word we would use for boast, pryp-word, has no exact
equivalence in English; pryp-word in the Bosworth-Toller Dictionary means "brave or
noble speech," but translators often translate it as "boast." To boast, in 21 s Century
America, is obnoxious. Germanic warriors didn't boast in our modern-day sense of the
word. Having pride in our accomplishments and exuding confidence is acceptable, but we
consider bold proclamations of our greatness to be immature and vulgar. In the Heroic
Age, however, warriors were expected to extol great achievement, or otherwise they would
seem weak. To simply insert the word "boast" in a translation gives the wrong idea to a
contemporary audience, but there is not one word that encompasses the Anglo-Saxon idea.
The translator can either include a lengthy footnote or change the structure of the poem to
better represent the sense of the idea. Such decisions are almost impossible:
The translator has to steer between extremes, between staying so close to
the source that the new readership is alienated by unfamiliar concepts,
forms or language, in short by that which is perceived to be "Other" and, at
the opposite extreme, leaving the source so far behind in an attempt to
satisfy the needs of that new readership that he or she may be accused of
A translator will always be accused of some kind of betrayal, either of the text or of a
readership. Beautiful or faithful, never both.
Formal vs Dynamic Equivalence
Eugene Nida defines this dilemma as the major issue in translation studies. He
contrasts "formal equivalence," the faithfulness to the original language in terms of diction
and grammar, and "dynamic equivalence," faithfulness to the spirit or sense of the poem.
Beowulf translators who prefer formal equivalence favor line-by-line, almost word-by-word
translations with copious footnotes to explain cultural connotation, complicated passages,
or historical implication. Although such translations are handy for the student of Anglo-
Saxon, they are little more than utilitarian: "it seems to be increasingly recognized that
adherence to the letter may indeed kill the spirit" (158). Some past formal equivalence
translations of Beowulf are inscrutable because of the "adherence to the letter," such as the
1895 translation by William Morris and Alfred Wyatt, long ridiculed by Beowulf scholars.
Dynamic equivalence translators value the unity of the poem over the syntax and
grammatical structure. Unity, for our purposes, is the combination of diction, poetic
device, form, sound, and story working together to create an experience. In a dynamic
equivalence translation, a translator may take liberties with the original language to increase
the readability for modern readers. In dynamic equivalence, "the relationship between
receptor and message should be substantially the same as that which existed between the
original receptors and the message" (Nida 156). The experience of the poem should be as
close to the same for a contemporary reader as it was for the medieval reader as possible.
The translator might replace "boast" with "confident in his accomplishments for good
reason;" although longer and of a different grammatical structure, the reader understands
the character as he was meant to be. There is no negative connotation. Since an average
reader has little background in Anglo-Saxon culture, translation must involve transmission
of culture, to some degree: "If his intended audience is not the Old English scholar, the
translator of Beowulf can count on virtually no collaboration with his reader's memory"
(Hudson 117). Formal equivalence places context in the footnotes, while dynamic
equivalence blends context into the lines for a smoother reading experience. When a reader
must constantly interrupt his or her reading to look at a footnote for comprehension, the
story loses some of its interest.
And publishers are ultimately concerned with the readers because readers buy
books. The tendency currently is toward dynamic equivalence, to varying degrees. Seamus
Heaney's 2000 translation takes many liberties with the language, to some critics' delight
and to others' dismay. The translation sold many copies, and the Norton Critical Edition
replaced E. Talbot Donaldson's formal equivalence translation with Heaney's dynamic
equivalence translation in 2004.
Heaney's intent is to give us the experience of Beowulf, not break down the
component parts. Since a poem's essence is more than the sum of its parts, plot and form
and poetic device, translators who focus on only the parts stifle the poem; translators who
From the LA Times, April 25, 2000, an article by Martin Miller, about the sales of
Heaney's Beowulf: "This is beyond anybody's expectations. It's just amazing," said Anne
Coyle, a spokeswoman for Farrar, Straus and Giroux, known for its highbrow literature and
focus on the unity or essence of the poem might sacrifice an adjective or syntax, but
ultimately show more respect for the poem as a whole.
Translation and Transformation
Because of the obstacles any translator of Beowulf must face, the text can considered
transformed more than it is translated. Grammar, diction, syntax, connotation, implication,
poetic structure and pacing cannot all smoothly and accurately be converted into modern
English. Something must give: "Translators must constantly make decisions about the
cultural meanings which language carries.. .In fact the process of meaning transfer often has
less to do with finding the cultural inscription of a term than in reconstructing its value"
(Simon 138). Culture does not come through in a formal equivalence translation; it must
be "reconstructed" through dynamic equivalence. The translation, then, cannot be seen as
an exact replica of a text — it works together with the original, not as a replacement but as
As regards the meaning, the language of a translation can — in fact must —
let itself go, so that it gives voice to the intentio of the original not as
reproduction but as harmony, as a supplement to the language in which it
expresses itself, as its own kind of intentio. Therefore it is not the highest
praise of a translation, particularly in the age of its origin, to say that it
reads as if it had originally been written in that language. (Benjamin 81)
Although we may not know the exact experience of an original audience, we do know that
the female characters had agency. Formal equivalence translations will always fail to
transmit the spirit of the poem; transformations can preserve the unity of Beowulf (or
Because most humanistic qualities of a strong poem cross language/cultural/time
boundaries. Only the details can seem foreign. Translation superimposes domestic
significance to a foreign text to make it seem less foreign. Lawrence Venuti states that "the
translator negotiates the linguistic and cultural differences of the foreign text by reducing
them and supplying another set of differences, basically domestic, drawn from the receiving
language and culture to enable the foreign to be received there" ("Translation" 482). In
order for a text to be relevant and understandable in Modern English, some foreign
elements must be replaced with familiar "domestic" ones. The idea of an acceptable "boast"
seems foreign in a respected hero, but confidence in a hero is familiar, so to really
understand the hero Beowulf, the term must be modified. Then we admire him which is
the experience of the original audience. Construction of a translation is akin to an art form
because the translator's modification of an original text comes from his or her skill,
experience, and character.
The translator, like any artist, cannot help but instill his or her own personality in
the translation: "some stamp of the translator's own mind and style upon the text is bound
to be a part of the process of rewriting a literary work into a language other than its native
one, and a firm stamp is sometimes preferable to a timid one" (Niles 859). The decision-
making process stems from a person's character, education, skill, and experience, and
immersing oneself in a text necessitates interpretation. Translation can never be objective,
must always be subjective: "translation ceases to be a passive linguistic transfer from one
language to another and becomes an active process influenced by the translator's identity,
views of the world and environment" (An done 149). Someone does not undertake the
translation of Beowulf without loving the poem, and the contribution of a new translation
to the long list of versions of Beowulf involves bridging two cultures through one's own
character: "The translator today is increasingly represented as negotiator, as inter-cultural
mediator, as interpreter... Translation involves taking responsibility, for the translator is the
person through whom a text passes on its journey from one context to another" (Bassnett).
How a translator superimposes domestic familiarity onto the original text involves the
hundreds of little decisions about language as any author or poet makes in composing
Making effective decisions in the translation of Beowulf demands a vast knowledge
of both languages and cultures, ancient and modern. The translator must know the Anglo-
Saxon culture well to negotiate it for the reader. "The work of the translator is as much to
understand this extraliterary frame, the mythos of the tribe and its signa sacra, as it is to
work through the poem word by word.. .he must steep himself in whatever has an Anglo-
Saxon, or even northern-medieval, smell to it" (Hudson 118). For although a translator
must transform a text so it has domestic familiarity, he or she cannot lose sight of the fact
that Beowulf 'is a medieval poem. Especially for Beowulf translators must understand the
medieval world well enough to know how bridge the gap between the middle ages and the
modern; transformation necessitates knowledge of culture so that it doesn't step over the
line and become adaptation, bearing little resemblance to the original. The essence of the
poem must remain medieval, and any tweaking of diction or form must take this into
So change to the original text is inevitable, and there can be no true formal
equivalence: "Transformation, as well as loss, is inevitable... the translator must become a
dealer in equivalences rather than exactitudes" (Hudson 111). A translator, armed with the
knowledge of both ancient and modern culture and languages, may even go so far as to
enhance the original text for a better reading experience: "the translator illumines, clarifies,
even fulfills meanings latent in the original; in certain instances, he may surpass the
original" (Hudson 115). Transmission of a poem from one culture to another is a delicate
process, and if a translator is skilled enough, he or she can modify the original text in a way
that retains the medieval feel of the poem while making it accessible and beautiful for
The Political Agenda of Translation
Any text has an agenda, and translations do even more so than most. Why does a
translator choose a particular text? Why do they make the decisions they do in the process
of translation? Why would a translator choose formal equivalence or dynamic equivalence?
Most importantly, how domestic should a translation become, or how foreign should a
translation remain? The latter question has ethical implications:
translation has moved theorists toward an ethical reflection wherein
remedies are formulated to restore or preserve the foreignness of the foreign
text... This ethical attitude is therefore simultaneous with a political agenda:
the domestic terms of inscription become the focus of rewriting in the
translation. (Venuti 483)
A translator's purpose in translation of a specific text determines what the original text will
become. A formal equivalence translator may focus on the plot or history in Beowulf, while
a dynamic equivalence translator may be concerned with the sound and sense of the poem.
Each considers his or her translation to be ethically appropriate because of the purpose of
A translation's readership decides if that translation is relevant or worthwhile. The
translation has to be important to a reading audience:
A translation aims to produce a new text that matters to one community
the way another text matters to another: but it is part of our understanding
of why texts matter that this is not a question that convention settles;
indeed, it is part of our understanding of literary judgment, that there can
always be new readings, new things that matter about a text, new reasons
for caring about new properties. (Appiah 397)
A translator of Beowulf takes an ancient text and makes it new for an audience, and that
audience in a different time period and culture may react to the text in new and unexpected
ways. Just as there is always new scholarship on Shakespeare, new ways to perceive and
analyze his plays, there will always be new ways of looking at Beowulf 'because the poem is
rich and resonates with questions of human existence. The way the poem is translated
plays a crucial part in a new audience's take on the poem.
Cultural Turn and Feminist Translation
An important modern method of interpretation is feminist criticism, and Beowulf 'is
ripe for such interpretation because of its complex characters and rich world built by the
original poet. I would argue that any modern day translator is a feminist translator because
he or she would not dismiss the female characters as extraneous even if the female
characters weren't given agency; they are clearly essential to the poem's meaning and they
are interesting in and of themselves. The women's movement of the 1960's and 1970's
changed the way our western culture perceives the position of women in society. The
gender divide is no longer an issue any scholar can ignore, according to Oana-Helena
Andone: "feminist ideology ...acknowledges the tensions between masculine and feminine
identities and strives to make feminine identity visible in language" (136). Wealhbeow is
more than just Hroogar's wife, and her identity and worth as an individual is clear in the
original Anglo-Saxon. Whether or not it is clear in a modern translation depends on the
sensitivity of the translator. A feminist translator is sensitive to the effect of language in
the creation of an individual character both in the original and modern language: "In
feminist translation theory, language interferes actively in the creation of meaning.
Language does not only mirror reality but contributes to its creation" (Andone 143). A
translator can create a complex Wealhbeow or an insignificant wife, and through language
choices, the reality of the character is set.
Translation of Beowulf utilizing feminist theory is a relatively new undertaking.
Feminism was not applied to translation studies until the early 1990s:
The 'cultural turn' in Translation Studies designates the move towards the
analysis of translation from the perspective of cultural studies... the
understanding of translation has changed, and it is seen as an activity which
may create or destabilize cultural identities and thus become a new mode of
cultural creation. (Andone 135)
Translators now would not think of ignoring the implications of culture in the process of
translation. The position of women in the world of Beowulf and the position of women in
modern-day culture must be considered — otherwise, a translation with shallow, two-
dimensional female characters will result, since in our patriarchal society women
traditionally have been seen as secondary.
The process of translation has necessarily changed because of the "cultural turn" as
defined by Andone. We can no longer impose our own assumptions of patriarchy on every
text regardless of original culture: "...the process of reclaiming the past for
women... (reevaluating) an uncontested vision of the world, past and present, as dominated
by great men... is mirrored in the revisions to the history of translation practice and in a
reevaluation of what translation means" (Bassnett). To translate a female character from
medieval culture into modern-day culture must involve analysis of the position of women
in both cultures, and only then can informed and sensitive translation choices be made that
respect the worth of the character in the text. We cannot assume that Wealhbeow was a
passive queen figure. To translate in modern times means to negotiate cultural
assumptions and implications.
Such negotiation is an intricate and personal process. A translator cannot remove
himself or herself from the translation because as noted before, the decisions a translator
makes stem from his or her experience and character and even gender: "Gender awareness
in translation has brought about a revision of another concept — the so-called invisibility of
the translator... They can no longer accept to function as the transparent channel which
does not leave any mark on the target text" (Andone 147). The identity of a translator will
bleed through in their translation. A male translator may make very different choices than
a female translator, and an expert in Anglo-Saxon history may make different choices than
a poet. How medieval female characters are reconstructed in Modern English depends on
the identity of the translator, their knowledge, assumptions, and agenda, as we saw with
Klaeber. The translator will never be able to remove himself or herself from the
The "cultural turn" changed the entire way we view the translation of a text. What
it is to be "faithful" and "beautiful" has changed:
Whereas fidelity has traditionally been analyzed in terms of word-for-word
vs. sense-for-sense translation, feminist theory views fidelity as directed
toward neither the author not the reader but toward the "writing project".
The project involves both the author and the translator. The translation
project is not a carrying across, but a reworking of the meaning.
Translation is not just about the text, but about the original author and the translator, also.
How all three work together determine the "faithfulness" and the "beauty."
Differing Philosophies of Translators
Formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence translators have opposing translation
methodologies. The agenda of a formal equivalence translator is to convey Anglo-Saxon
history and language; such translators have immersed themselves in the details of medieval
life and the grammar of Anglo-Saxon. Dynamic equivalence translators tend to remake the
lines and add context for Anglo-Saxon passages that are difficult enough to demand hard
choices and which cannot be transmitted smoothly:
here the translator-imitator may find justification for his liberties. But,
obviously, to travel on this path with any success the translator must be a
good poet in his own right... (Ezra) Pound and many others have revealed
that fidelity can sometimes be achieved through what some would consider
licentious freedom. (Hudson 113)
So a dynamic equivalence translator's freedom and creativity with language in translating
Beowulf might actually turn out more faithful than a precise and exact formal equivalence
version. Donaldson, whose version was used in the Norton edition for decades, chose
precision over beauty: "Donaldson steadfastly declines to resolve these questions creatively.
His method is so literal as to seem artless" (Niles 868). How ironic: to be faithful and
respectful to the poem, sometimes one has to deviate from exacting precision.
But this is the nature of poetry — the balance of beauty and meaning. To
completely sacrifice the beauty and the rhythm of the poem for the sake of word-for-word
precision is to fail to see the forest for the trees. It is not unscrupulous to veer away from a
strict and literal interpretation of a section of the poem if doing so preserves the beauty or
the reading experience or the overall sense:
The argument that a domesticating translation strategy is somehow
unethical, because it elides signs of foreignness in the text becomes untenable
once we start to look at translation as process... a translator who reveres the
source so much that the needs of readers are secondary, is unlikely to find a
responsive audience. (Bassnett)
The reader should be of foremost concern to a translator. Beowulf 'is more than the sum of
its parts, grammar and vocabulary and plot, and the most important element in the
transmission of the text from Anglo-Saxon to modern English must be the reader. A
translator needs to remember that he or she is translating and publishing for an audience,
not as an academic exercise. Why else bother to translate?
HISTORY OF TRANSLATIONS OF BEOWULF
There are hundreds of translations of Beowulf: complete translations, fragments,
digressions, in German, English, Spanish, and other languages. We have been fascinated by
this Anglo-Saxon text hidden away for centuries and then almost accidentally burned up in
a fire. Since there is only one copy of the text and since the author and provenance are
unknown, we can only speculate about many facets of the text and the history behind the
text. As mentioned before, J.R.R. Tolkein's famous essay "The Critics and the Monsters"
admonished the scholars who considered the epic poem of more historical significance than
literary, defending the integrity of the poem as a complex and masterful work of literature.
As a historical artifact the poem provides information of a previous culture, but as a poem
Beowulf is enjoyable and enlightening. Although older translations are more interested in
the history and grammar of the text, more modern translators clearly take joy in the artful
language and the story of the poem.
John M. Kemble was the first to translate the whole of Beowulf into English. He
was a scholar and historian at Cambridge University in England, and his complete
translation was first published in 1833. Since he was the first he had no models for
comparison, he was not influenced by any predecessors, and his purpose was to give the
basic sense of the poem:
The translation is a literal one; I was bound to give word for word, the
original in all its roughness: I might have made it smoother, but I purposely
avoided doing so, because had the Saxon poet thought as we think, and
expressed his thoughts as we express our thoughts, I might have spared
myself the trouble of editing or translating his poem, (i)
He wanted to maintain the sense of foreignness in the poem, not turn it into a modern
equivalent. Kemble's version was in prose because he was more concerned with the story
and how it was told than the poetry. His aim was historical and academic to make the text
accessible to students. He made huge strides in contributing to the study of the Anglo-
Saxon language: "The Glossary, I hope, will be found to contain every word which occurs in
the poem, and it contains many which are not found there, because I thought that it might
some day serve as a foundation for a Dictionary of the Saxon Poetic language" (ii). Kemble
fulfilled his purpose; he created a rough yet grammatically accurate translation of a poem
that had not been read in Modern English before as an academic historical exercise.
Kemble began a long tradition of translating Beowulf. Many other complete
translations followed, both in prose and in verse. William Morris and Alfred John Wyatt
created a translation in verse using archaic language; their version is confusing and
awkward, sounding more humorous than heroic because of the form, and it was ridiculed
by most Anglo-Saxon scholars. Early translators of Beowulf were necessarily academics
because Anglo-Saxon, as a dead language, was studied in universities in history
departments. Their aim was the study of the poem, not recreational reading. Tolkein's
essay was indeed aimed at such scholars.
Another influential scholar who translated Beowulf 'is Howell Chickering, a
professor at Amherst. His aim was to be true to the grammatical language:
My translation takes a few liberties from time to time, but for the most part
it gives the plain sense of the original or, when a literal translation would be
unclear, the intended meaning as I see it. By not trying to imitate the
alliteration and other audible features of the facing original, I was able to
concentrate on reproducing the poetic ordering of parts, sentence by
By ignoring poetic devices, Chickering could focus fully on keeping the syntax and
structure parallel to the original; in fact, in Chickering's version the Anglo-Saxon is on the
left and his translation is on the right, directly across the pages from each other. The
An example of Morris and Wyatt translation, when Wealhbeow speaks to Hroogar: "I
ween that good-will yet this man will be yielding / To our offspring that be after us, if he
mind him / of all that which we two, for good-will and for worship, / Unto him erst a
child yet have framed of kindness."
translation, due to this arrangement, is supported by the original text. The book is helpful
for students of Beowulf 'because of the closeness of original and translation. His dedication
to individual lines and words, though, makes the text somewhat inaccessible to casual
readers; the tight terseness of Anglo-Saxon poetry is not elegant in modern English.
Chickering made the deliberate decision to focus on language over meaning: "I felt I could
leave the more complex connotations for the commentary as long as the translation did not
sound overblown... I know only too well how annotation can deaden the very things it was
meant to illuminate" (xii). He sacrificed the sense of the poem for "correctness;" teaching
students to translate Anglo-Saxon involves more rote skill than creativity, as does this
version of the poem.
In addition to translating the poem himself, Chickering reviewed many other
translations, including E. Talbot Donaldson and Seamus Heaney, translators to be
discussed later. From his critiques we can see his own formal equivalence tendencies.
Chickering comments that "A poetic form... must be an improvement over prose"
("Donaldson's" 779), criticizing Donaldson's choice of prose over poetry; Chickering's own
version is in verse. Overall Chickering admires Donaldson's version, though. Of
Donaldson's very literal translation he says:
In choosing to be literal, and choosing prose, Donaldson shows a humility
which is not only downright attractive by contrast, but, more importantly,
comes from being a finely perceptive reader of the Anglo-Saxon.
Chickering believes that a literal, word-for-word and line-by-line translation shows
"humility" because Donaldson could have used his skills to deviate from the original syntax.
I am not sure how adhering to a medieval grammatical structure instead of to the poetry
and unity if the poem shows humility — it is a conscious choice made by a translator,
sacrificing one aspect for another. I also am not sure how replacing Modern English words
for Anglo-Saxon words for the sake of literalness makes Donaldson a "perceptive reader,"
but Chickering also admires Donaldson's formal equivalence translation methods, which are
very similar to his own.
E. Talbot Donaldson was a scholar translator very much like Chickering. A
professor at Yale, he received many honors as an American Medievalist. He was considered
such an expert that Norton adopted his translation for their critical edition in 1975. Like
Chickering, Donaldson focused his efforts on diction and grammar over sense:
it has seems best to translate as literally as possible, confining oneself to the
linguistic and intellectual structure of the original. It is perfectly true that a
literal translation such as this is bound to result in a style of modern
English prose that was never seen before on land or sea and is not apt to be
Donaldson admits that his translation is awkward and inelegant due to his strict adherence
to the "linguistic and intellectual structure of the original." His aim as a medievalist is to
present the information in the text in as close a form to the original as possible, and
provide copious footnotes for clarification. The style and beauty of the poem are of
secondary concern; Donaldson's aim is to provide a literal version for study in a classroom,
leaving context and figurative language as the responsibility of the student. He knew the
consequences of choosing a literal prose translation:
If... a verse translation does not try to be a poem in its own right, then it
can only be versification, a literal rendering constantly distracted from
literalism by the need to versify, as a more creative translation is constantly
distracted from literalism by the translator's creativity. Rather than try to
create a new and lesser poem for the reader, it seems better to offer him in
prose the literal materials from which he can re-create the poem, (xiii)
Donaldson's assumption that any translation in verse would be a "lesser poem" is telling;
that a translator would weaken the poem with "creativity" belies his bias toward
information over art. The consummate scholar, Donaldson wanted to publish a version of
Beowulf for study instead of for pleasure reading.
In the mid-twentieth century, however, a different population began to take notice
of the poem. This interest may have come about because the poem gained respect for its
sophistication along with its historical import; Tolkein's message of the importance of the
poem as an artistic creation finally got through. The new translators' efforts with Anglo-
Saxon poetry changed the way the poem was perceived. It became a text to read for
pleasure as much as a text for study in a university. Dynamic equivalence translators had a
different focus: poetic style and reader reception, as opposed to historical and grammatical
Edwin Morgan was such a translator. His 1952 translation of Beowulf is quite
different from previous translations by academics, which Morgan disliked:
not one of these has succeeded in establishing itself as a notable
presentation, even for its own period, of a great original... Nothing has been
found, therefore, in these Beowulf translations to interest either the
practicing poet or the cultivated reader of poetry, unless his aim is simply to
find out what the poem deals with, and that would be more safely and easily
got from a prose version, (vii)
Morgan's theory of translating Beowulf 'is not that of a historian. He was concerned with
the reader more than with historical accuracy, with the language and beauty of the poetry
more than a "dry, torpid" retelling of the story. Because of this he embraced dynamic
equivalence rather than formal equivalence, giving him more power to mold words into a
beautiful and energetic poem: "The lines must be able to contract to terseness, and expand
to splendor" (xvi). Even Morgan's description of his translation has beauty. Morgan
eschewed archaisms but kept the four-stress meter, giving the poem the sense and texture
of the original but not reminding the reader that the poem is ancient instead of present and
relevant. A reader needs no footnotes or dictionary or knowledge of Anglo-Saxon to read
and understand the epic because Morgan blended such information into the poem itself.
Poet Marc Hudson is similarly concerned with poetic elements in his 1990
translation. Reminiscent of Tolkein's insistence that Beowulf is first and foremost a work of
literature, Hudson states, "to ignore the rhythm and the aural patterning of the verses is to
betray Beowulf s artistry" (122). Hudson has an ear for the poetry of the epic and so
embraces dynamic equivalence in order to maintain the poetic elements and create a sense
of the poem that might not be as "accurate" as a word-for-word rendering but has the same
feel and texture of the original. Hudson adds words and makes changes in his translation
to develop "more accurate music of the line.. .For the spirit and not the literal, inanimate
letter.. .The outcome of the whole game depends, finally, on the tact and accuracy of the
translator's intuitions" (167). Both Hudson's and Morgan's dynamic equivalence
translation methodologies allow the reader a greater sense of what the experience of the
original was for the original audience. Hudson comments on his process:
The four-stress line, the diction of a higher tone, the resolution of kennings
into phrases, the fidelity to the rhetorical figures and to the contemplative
character of the poem — these represent controlling biases that informed my
choices, providing the work as a whole with a unity it would not have
otherwise possessed. (159)
The "unity" Hudson refers to incorporates poetic elements and story details to create an
overall sense of the original, which was not just a story but a creation of a world, not just
information about a situation but an experience for the reader. The four-stress line of the
poem is an essential part of the sound of the lines. The Beowulf 'poet deliberately chose this
form to provide flow to the story, and to remove it from a translation would be like
rewriting Shakespeare's sonnets without iambic pentameter. The terse, condensed lines are
part of the experience of reading this poem, and to translate without using this form
implies that the information and historical significance is more important than the
exquisite artistry of Beowulf. The same can be said of the kennings and rhetorical figures
Hudson insists are necessary for the "unity" of the translation.
The most famous contemporary translation of Beowulf is by the Irish poet Seamus
Heaney. He strongly believes that Beowulf 'is of cultural importance not because of
historical aspects but because the poem's relevance to us today as great literature: "Its
narrative elements may belong to a previous age but as a work of art it lives in its own
continuous present, equal to our knowledge of reality the present time" (ix). The poem is
relevant and the narrative resonates for a modern day reader, according to Heaney. He
translated for the contemporary reader, not for an Anglo-Saxon scholar. His book was first
published in 2000 to great acclaim and was adopted by Norton to replace Donaldson in the
Norton Critical Edition of Beowulf. This shift in the Norton Critical Edition is indicative
of the recent trend in translation of the epic; in order to keep the text alive, poet
translators have taken up the challenge and have translated with a contemporary audience
in mind. Heaney purported to recreate the experience of the poem for readers today, and
to do so, he felt free to make certain changes:
Seamus Heaney's translation won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award in 2000.
I have not followed the strict metrical rules that bound the Anglo-Saxon
scop. I have been guided by the fundamental pattern of four stresses to the
line, but I allow myself several transgressions. For example, I don't always
employ alliteration, and sometimes I alliterate only in one half of one line.
When these breeches occur, it is because I prefer to let the natural "sound
of sense" prevail over the demands of the convention. I have been reluctant
to force an artificial shape or unusual word choice just for the sake of
Like Marc Hudson, Heaney translated in a manner that respects the artistry and ignores
"convention" to that end. He makes decisions to create a naturalness in the poem for his
readers, creating an easy flow in the storyline with few arcane references, instead of
distracting readers with a sense of foreignness.
An example Heaney uses to explain his translation method is the first word of the
poem, "Hwaet." Literally the word in Anglo-Saxon means "what." But the idea of
beginning a tale with "what" doesn't work in modern English:
Conventional renderings of hwaet, the first word of the poem, tend towards
the archaic literary, with "lo" and "hark" and "behold" and "attend" and —
more colloquially — "listen" being some of the solutions offered previously.
But in Hiberno-English Scullionspeak, the particle "so" came naturally to
the rescue, because in that idiom "so" operates as an expression which
obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time
functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention, (xxvii)
Heaney could have used the direct translation of "what" and then included a long footnote
to explain the etymology of the word and how we culturally have accepted a different idiom
to gather attention and begin a story apropos of nothing, but the pleasure reader doesn't
care. The reader knows what the word "So" represents and can continue on with the poem
with interest instead of tedium. "So" is direct and to the point, and fits easily into the
sound or music of the Anglo-Saxon poetry: "What I was after first and foremost was a
narrative line that sounded as if it meant business, and I was prepared to sacrifice other
things in pursuit of this directness of utterance" (xxix). The sacrifice of the etymology of
"what" is not a great loss.
Howell Chickering's review of Heaney's translation was not flattering. Chickering
admits that "For fidelity to both the letter and spirit of the original, it is a resounding but
mixed success, with some awkward missteps" ("HeaneywulP 162); his acknowledgement of
Heaney's success is heavily qualified. Chickering calls Heaney's freedom in verse translation
full of "overcooked imagery and bumping alliteration" ("Heaneywulf 168). He also does
not like the fact that Heaney used 12 words of Ulster origin because Chickering thought
Heaney was writing for himself and not for a non-Ulster audience, calling it "bad cultural
and linguistic history" ("Heaneywulf 173). Here we see Chickering's bias: linguistics. As
for Heaney's readers, 12 words will not confuse the text's meaning, and they provide a sense
of texture in the poetic language of Beowulf, which is not supposed to be ordinary language.
As a formal equivalence translator, Chickering is suspect of Heaney's dynamic equivalence
version and the new model of making the original text new again.
Chickering was not the only translator to criticize his colleagues. Each translator I
examined, from Kemble to Heaney, commented on his translation philosophies and why
his was best in a forward or introduction. The trend toward dynamic equivalency was
resisted by many translators at first but now seems to be the default method of translation
of Beowulf. A close look at the original Anglo-Saxon lines reveals why Donaldson's version
is no longer relevant and why Heaney's version is this generation's accepted translation.
THE QUEENS: TEXT ANALYSIS
The formal equivalence translators and dynamic equivalence translators have
different purposes, the former to preserve information and the latter to provide an
authentic reading experience, but they are both translating for a reading audience. A closer
examination of Donaldson's and Heaney's words serves as a useful gauge; they can represent
each group of translators (formal and dynamic), they are each acclaimed for their
translations, and each was adopted by the Norton Critical Edition. A close textual analysis
of how each translator approached the female characters through use of diction, poetic
device, and elaboration reveals the difference in their methods; female characters are
marginalized in the formal equivalency of the scholars, and they are rightfully given agency
in the dynamic equivalency of the poets.
Donaldson specifically chose to write his translation in prose so that a reader
wouldn't be distracted from the information of the poem by the form of a "lesser poem."
He divides his translation into sections with descriptive headers that explain what will
happen. Donaldson uses modern paragraphing but within each sentence he uses many
commas that mirror the phrasing of the original lines. He tries to keep the syntax as close
to the original as possible. The result is an awkward and rambling sentence structure that
becomes tedious to read, as well as vague or confusing, as we will see. It is not
representative of the artistry of the original.
Seamus Heaney does just the opposite. He is concerned not only with the storyline
but with how the form and devices in the poetry support the epic. To show the original
form, Heaney places the original text opposite the translation in his book. He does this so
that the reader never forgets it is a translation of an medieval and Germanic epic, a foreign
text. The juxtaposition also allows the translation to lean on the strength of the Anglo-
Saxon original, which tempers the liberalness of his translation: although the words in each
line might not be parallel, readers can see the tempo and structure of the source text. Even
though the reader might not know Anglo-Saxon, he or she knows the feel of the poem just
by viewing the lines. Heaney's translation brings the epic into the modern age for smooth
readability, but the parallel text roots it firmly in the medieval age.
Wealhbeow is always present before and after Beowulf s battles as a representative of
her people. She comments on the situation and offers encouragement and warnings. We
see her wielding power with words instead of swords. As Hroogar's queen she has an
exalted and influential position in the hall, and as she warns Beowulf, the men of the hall
will gladly do her bidding. Yet Donaldson's strict attention to word and line in his
translation make Wealhbeow seem two-dimensional and weaker than she is, though — her
strong character and power do not survive a formal equivalence translation. Heaney's words
do allow Wealhbeow the power and character of her queenship. Instead of limiting himself
to the precise diction and syntax, Heaney uses his poetic skills to work with the original
text and represent its sense and ideas to a modern audience. Donaldson's translation is
meant to be studied; Heaney's is meant to be savored.
We first meet Wealhbeow when Beowulf comes to offer his services to Hroogar (see
app. Al-3). She enters the hall after the feast has begun and completes her duties as a
queen. Donaldson's translation makes her duties seem that of a hostess, merely Hroogar's
servant, while Heaney's translation allows her the potency and ability befitting her station.
Gold, to the people of this heroic age, is representative of much more than
wealth — it is a status symbol, a symbol of courage and heroism, and implies power and
authority. A person obtains gold by violence or by the favor of a rich leader. The Beowulf
poet used the metal to signify much more than treasure, especially as concerns the queens.
The most telling phrase is goldhroden in line 6 14 and 640 used to describe Wealhbeow
when she enters the hall. This term is used four times in the epic to describe Wealhbeow,
Freawaru, and Modthrith, all royal women. The Bosworth and Toller Anglo-Saxon
Dictionary defines goldhroden as "gold-adorned," an adjective. Precise to a fault,
Donaldson uses this definition in his translation. The word hroden means laden or
ornamented, an adjective describing a passive object that has been embellished. The
connotation of hroden makes Wealhbeow into an object to be displayed in the hall, an
extension of Hroogar's wealth and status. It negates Wealhbeow's status. However, as
discussed previously, Germanic queens held positions of status that made them politically
astute, and in the role of peace-weaver a queen played subtle politics in order to keep the
peace in the hall and among tribes. Since Wealhbeow is both, she is clearly not a
mannequin used to display Hroogar's gold — the gold actually represents her own power and
stature. Heaney's translation of goldhroden as "adorned in her gold" in line 614 makes much
more sense for today's reader. The possessive pronoun "her" changes Wealhbeow's position
and character drastically. Then, when we come to line 640, the term "arrayed with gold"
follows the description "regal," reinforcing the idea that Wealhbeow is queen with a queen's
power, represented by her riches.
1 All definitions from this point forward will be from The Bosworth and Toller Anglo-
Gold again is an issue when Wealhbeow speaks to Hroogar after the first battle in
line 1162 (see app. Bl-3); Wealhbeow walks into the hall under gyldnum beage. A beage is a
crown or ring, and Donaldson translates the phrase as "under gold crown." The ownership
of the crown is vague; it could be any crown or piece of jewelry. However, Wealhbeow is
about to speak firmly to Hroogar and ensure the succession of the tribe, so Heaney's
translation "in her gold crown" is more suitable, because the possessive pronoun reminds
the reader of her position and power; she can and will influence Hroogar and Beowulf. She
owns the queenship instead of the queenship owning her, and her gold crown is
representative of her authority in the hall. Heaney looks past the literal words to see
symbolism and implication that Donaldson misses.
The way Wealhbeow is described by the narrator is another matter that clearly
reveals the difference in Heaney's and Donaldson's translations. When Wealhbeow first
acknowledges the men in the hall she is acting as a proper queen; the Anglo-Saxon word
grette (line 614) has a number of definitions in Bosworth and Toller, including speak, call
upon, hail, greet, welcome, salute, and bid farewell. Donaldson chose the definition that
sounds similar: "greeted." To greet is to simply say hello, a pedestrian action made
everyday in all walks of life. Heaney chose the definition "saluted," which is a wholly
different gesture; "saluted" has military connotations, which would befit the leader of a
group of warriors. It is also a gesture of respect, buttressing the bonds between a close
tribe and a leader. Later in the poem the suggestion that the men will fight for their queen
(1230) supports the position of queen-as-commander.
A further description of Wealhbeow in this section is that ofwisfiest wordum; wisfost
is defined as wise, discreet, or judicious, and the dictionary entry makes a note that in the
case of line 626 in Beowulf 'it applies to people (see app. Al-3). Wordum means of words,
so the description of Wealhbeow is a woman who speaks wisely and judiciously, a
consummate politician. Donaldson's translation is "sure of speech" and Heaney's is "With
measured words," two different ideas; "sure of speech" implies confidence, but leaves out
any idea of wisdom or skill. "With measured words" implies thought and caution, very
appropriate for a situation in which an unknown warrior shows up with his band of
warriors. Heaney is describing a politician; Donaldson is describing a figurehead.
Wealhbeow' s speech to Hroogar beginning in line 1168 is introduced with Spr<ec Ba
ides Scyldinga: (see app. Bl-3). Donaldson translated this literally to mean "Then the
woman of the Scyldings spoke." Yet the word ides complicates this line; Bosworth and
Toller note that the noun is used mainly in poetry. Ides does not mean any woman, but is
used for women of high standing, as Joyce Hill explains in her article "pact Wxs Geomuru
Ides!" Donaldson's translation gives ownership of Wealhbeow to the Scyldings, but a
woman of high standing would not have this sense of being an object that is owned; rather,
she is one of their leaders. Donaldson's grammatically faithful sentence does not reveal
Wealhbeow's character. Heaney translates this line simply: "The queen spoke." The reader
immediately remembers that this is a woman of authority, and so her words gain weight
and significance. Hroogar will listen to her, because she is not any woman, she is his
queen. Also interesting is that the poet did not use the work mapelode but spree: the verb
mapelode, meaning "said," is commonly used to introduce dialogue or monologue. Spree,
"spoke," is much more formal and commanding in Modern English, emphasizing the
formality and significance of Wealhbeow's speech.
Wealhbeow's final public speech, given when Beowulf leaves to sail home, is to
thank him, wish him luck, and give him valuable gifts (see app. Cl-3). As a queen she has
the power to give the gifts of a gold ring and a mail shirt from the tribe's hoard. The word
mapelode from line 1215 is translated by Donalsdon as "spoke" and by Heaney as
"pronounced," two very different verbs. To speak is merely to talk, but to pronounce is to
make a truth known to a large group of people. As queen, Wealhbeow is in a position to
act in such a formal and ritual way: the gifts and wishes come from the entire tribe instead
of from just herself.
After her pronouncement, Wealhbeow leaves the center of the stage — Eode pa to
setle (1232). The simple action of walking back to Hroogar has dissimilar connotation in
the different way it is translated: Donaldson's version is "Then she walked to her seat" and
Heaney's is "She moved then to her place." Setle does mean seat, but it is too general a
definition in this specific line. Again, everyone in the hall has a seat, but only a queen or
king has a "place." A queen's place is next to the king in a representative position of power,
possibly a head table higher than the rest. Wealhbeow gains gravitas when we are reminded
of her power and authority in this way — it is indeed her place to speak to Beowulf on
behalf of all the people.
Wealhbeow' s own words are translated to present her either as a weak woman or a
queen with agency. When Wealhbeow admonishes Hroogar to remember his sons after he
suggests giving Beowulf an inheritance in line 1168 (see app. Bl-3), she must be an
effective peaceweaver, because to give the leadership of a tribe to an outsider would cause
conflict and bloodshed. Additionally, she wants to make sure her kin, and through them,
herself, retains control. She must speak carefully and diplomatically. A simple conjunction
in this speech changes Wealhbeow's character. In her admonition to Hroogar, she says,
bruc penden pu mote
manigra medo, ond pinum magum Iteffolc ond rice.
Donaldson translates: "Enjoy while you may many rewards, and leave your kinsmen folk
and kingdom." The ond does mean "and," but Heaney liberally translates it as "but:"
Relish their company, but recollect as well
all of the boons that have been bestowed on you.
The slight shift of conjunction gives Wealhbeow's words an ominous feeling; Donaldson's
translation focuses on the word "Enjoy," a positive and happy word, while Heaney's lines
focus on the word "recollect" as a threat since the conjunction "but" shows contrast instead
of similarity. Donaldson's Wealhbeow is polite and soft — Heaney's Wealhbeow is bold and
Heaney also gives Wealhbeow's words a sense of drama through his use of anaphora
in lines 1180-83 (see app. Bl-3). Although not a device used in Beowulf, anaphora is used
in modern English poetry to create a heightened feeling of tension — the repetition
emphasizes specific lines and sets them apart from the rest. Wealhbeow is making a case
for keeping the tribe's power in the family:
I am certain of Hrothulf
He is noble and will use the young ones well.
He will not let you down. Should you die before him,
He will treat our children truly and fairly.
He will honour, I am sure, our two sons
The repetition of "He" highlights the idea that Hrobulf, not Beowulf, will do what is best
for the hall. Heaney shows Wealhbeow as a queen capable of wielding words to control a
difficult situation; Hroogar has made a poor suggestion, and his queen lets him know it.
Heaney continues to allow Wealhbeow strength in the phrase "I am sure" from
above. Donaldson translates the words Ic minne can as "I think" instead. Can means "I
know." The connotation of "I think" is uncertainty and indecisiveness, words used to
soften a statement. "I am sure" is bold and strong. Wealhbeow's character is colored by
these many small distinctions that add up to create either a soft hostess or a strong political
Freawaru's character is likewise made different through a number of small
translation choices. We don't see much of Wealhbeow and Hroogar's daughter, but
Beowulf explains her situation to Hygelac when he returns to his lord and reports of the
Scyldings (see app. Dl-3). The term goldhroden (line 2025) is again translated by
Donaldson as "gold-adorned" and by Heaney as "in her gold-trimmed attire," in the first
instance making Freawaru into an object and in the possessive pronoun in the second
giving her enough clout as a royal princess to own gold. Such characterization is clear in
the translation of lines 2029-2031:
Oft seldan hw<er
cefter leodhryre lytle hwile
bongar buged, peak seo bryd dugel
Beowulf predicts that Freawaru's marriage into a hostile tribe as a peace-weaver will end in
tragedy because of past hostilities. Donadson's version reads: "Yet most often after the fall
of any prince in any nation the deadly spear rests but a little while, even though the bride
be good." Good is about as vague as an adjective can be: horses are good, and gold, and
ships. Anything is good that is not bad. Freawaru is characterized as more of an object
that a human being. Duge does mean to do or be good, but Heaney looks beyond the
But generally the spear
is prompt to retaliate when a prince is killed,
no matter how admirable the bride may be.
Heaney chooses "admirable" instead of "good," a much more specific adjective. People are
admirable for their deeds and character, so it is a compliment to Freawaru; it shows her
character. She is a princess in a difficult situation; as discussed before, royal women in this
culture had the impossible job of creating peace among people who value war. This
necessary function of queens is emphasized by Heaney; Freawaru is probably admirable for
her ability to weave peace, but even this skill cannot compete with the instinct for revenge.
If she is indeed admirable, her situation becomes more tragic, because she will try, and fail,
and not deserve her fate.
Hildeburh is another archetypal medieval character that has a tragic fate she cannot
escape (see app. El-3). As the poem states in line 1075, jxet wees geomuru idesl The lines
are juxtaposed to the lines early on in the poem about Scyld Scefing, jxet w<es god cyning!
Hildeburh is juxtaposed to the famous king, giving her a status similar to a king's. This
idea is not clear in a formal equivalence translation. Word for word, Donaldson translates
this half line as, "That was a mournful woman." This statement of fact is impersonal and
could apply to many a woman, and it reveals little about Hildeburh herself. Heaney's
translation of this section is difficult to line up with the original text, but he is much more
descriptive about Hildeburh's horrible position:
the woman in shock,
waylaid by grief,
Hoe's daughter —
"Mournful" is less specific and less dramatic than "shocked" and "waylaid by grief." Even
the fact that Heaney arranges these lines of the scop's tale in italics and spaces the half-lines
out as he does creates a greater sense of drama in her tale. The alliteration in these original
lines— both, battlefield, bereft, blameless— makes Hildeburh's grief stand out in relief.
Hildeburh's pathetic plight is very dramatic in Heaney's translation, as it should be for his
Modbryo is a complicated character in that she undergoes a complete character
change almost inexplicably (see app. Fl-3). Her evil nature is contrasted with Hygd's
generous character in a story told by the narrator when Beowulf returns home in lines
Mod pryfio w<eg,
Fremu folces oven, firen ondrysne.
Heaney changes the syntax and parts of speech:
Great Queen Modthryth
perpetrated terrible wrongs
Donaldson's words are very similar: "Modthryo, good folk-queen, did dreadful deeds [in
her youth] ." Donaldson must insert information in brackets for his translation to make
sense. Heaney makes the word fremu into a title, moving the adjective to modify
Modbryo's name, and the result is that the reader knows Modbryo has power and status.
Donaldson's "good folk-queen" is much weaker; not only is "good" weaker than "Great," it
follows the proper noun, weakening the adjective's status in the sentence. Likewise with
"Queen" and "queen;" although the capitalization can be attributed to grammar, the capital
Q gives a greater sense of significance.
Hygd is a queen very much like Wealhbeow in that she has a position of authority
and is admired by her people (see app. Fl-3). When Beowulf returns to his homeland, the
narrator describes Hygd in line 1929-31:
Hcerepes dohtor; rues hio hnah swa peak,
ne to gneafi gifa Geata leodum,
She is Hzereb's daughter, meaning she was born into a powerful family, giving her clout.
Donaldson follows the litotes of the original poem: "For she was not niggardly, not too
sparing of gifts to the men of the Geats, of treasures." Defining someone by what they are
not in modern English is complicated. If a person is "not niggardly" the double negative
suggests that the person could actually be stingy but not as extreme as niggardly. The
meaning becomes vague without a clear sense of tone. Litotes can also be used for
understatement, as is the case in the original Anglo-Saxon lines. Heaney avoids the
ambiguity of litotes altogether:
Hareth's daughter behaved generously
and stinted nothing when she distributed
bounty to the Geats.
Heaney's eloquent lines refer to Hygd as "generous," an admirable quality, instead of "not
niggardly," which is awkward and implies that Hygd gives what she should, not more.
Heaney's translation does not follow the syntax of the original, but reorganizes grammatical
elements for a smoother flow. The reader does not have to slow down to grapple with a
choppy sentence like Donaldson's, and can focus instead on Queen Hygd's character.
Hygd's power is most apparent after her husband Hygelac dies and she offers
leadership to Beowulf (see app. Gl-3):
(Er him Hygd gebead hord ond rice,
beagas ond bregostol, bearne ne truwode
p<et he wid telfylcum epelstolas
healdan cuSe, da wees Hygelac dead.
These lines prove without a doubt the power and savvy of a queen: Hygd has the power to
choose the next leader and can even break the family dynasty, and she is intelligent enough
to put the needs of the tribe before her own son's position. Donaldson's version reads:
"There Hygd offered him hoard and kingdom, rings and a prince's throne. She had no
trust in her son, that he could hold his native throne against foreigners now that Hygelac
was dead." Hygd is characterized as powerful in this version, but it is not as strong as
There Hygd offered him throne and authority
as lord of the ring-hoard: with Hygelac dead,
she had no belief in her son's ability
to defend their homeland against foreign invaders.
In Donaldson's version, Hygd offered Beowulf four objects: hoard, kingdom, rings, and
throne. Heaney more explicitly indicates that Beowulf will have power, which is only
implies in Donaldson's lines: Hygd offers him "authority." That she can give him power
shows more strength of position than offering him objects, however large. Heaney's
translation also makes the political climate seem dire, and thus Hygd's offer more
significant: instead of "hold his native throne against foreigners," Heaney uses the words
"defend their homeland against foreign invaders." To "defend" is a stronger verb than to
"hold," and "homeland" is more important than a person's "throne" since it affects more
people, and "foreigners" are less threatening than "foreign invaders." In Donaldson's
version it seems that there might be some trouble, but in Heaney's version, war is
imminent. That Hygd would recognize the danger of war and act as a peaceweaver by
giving power to Beowulf proves her to be astute, strong, and authoritative.
Grendel's mother is not a typical female character: she can be considered a woman
or a monster, sympathetic or horrific, or all at the same time. For my purposes, I equate
Grendel's mother with the queens, for a few reasons: like the other queens, she is a mother
and advocates for her son, she is in a position of authority in her hall, she was forced into a
tragic life (she is an outcast because she is a descendant of Cain), and she must be stealthy
and cautious instead of acting aggressively to gain what she needs (revenge and Grendel's
arm). Grendel's mother is a border- walker; she walks the line between human and
monster, she lives on the outskirts if society, and she is female with the disposition of a
male. The description of her using many hyphens, such as monster-wife, shows this idea —
she walks the line between the two incongruous nouns. There is a strong sense of
underlying sympathy for this character that is in-between. We are given the justification
for her actions, no matter how destructive she may be. Her character has many somewhat
When we first meet Grendel's mother (see app. Hl-3), she is described in line 1258
ides, agheavif, yrmpe gemunde
As discussed before, ides means woman, but is most often used to describe an unusual
woman who has some special quality. It is a word usually used in poetry, so it is not a
common word for a common woman. In this passage ides may be used ironically.
Donaldson follows word for word: "Grendel's mother, woman, monster-wife, was mindful
of her misery." In this translation ides is not ironic, nor do we get the sense that there is
anything special or unusual about this woman. "Monster-wife" refers to Grendel's mother's
descent from Cain; by not clarifying this point, she seems more evil than tragic and cast
out — after all, Cain committed the crime, not Grendel's mother. "Mindful of her misery"
emphasizes thinking about her sad circumstances, but does not identify the cause of them.
Heaney's lines read:
monstrous hell-bride, brooded over her wrongs.
Here Grendel's mother is described as more of a monster than a woman also, but she has
been wronged by an outside party, as opposed to being sad. Of course she is brooding — she
has reason, her son is dead. Heaney, like Donaldson, does not explain the significance of
"hell-bride," a choice that pushes Grendel's mother into the realm of evil, which seems
counter to his usual tendency.
Heaney's translation does make Grendel's mother seem more of a wronged woman
than Donaldson's. In Donaldson's version, she "had to dwell in the terrible water," but we
don't know why. Did she choose her dwelling place herself? Heaney uses the words
"forced down into fearful waters," which is much more dramatic. Someone, probably god,
used violent means to push Grendel's mother out of society into a terrible place. She is the
passive, wronged party in this scenario. In describing her need for revenge Heaney's
mother is also sympathetic and pathetic; she is "grief-racked and ravenous, desperate for
revenge." This is a woman who is suffering because of the loss of her son, something to
which any mother could relate. Desperation and grief make her more human, not more
monstrous. Donaldson would have her be a monster, though; she is "greedy and gallows
grim, (she) would go on a sorrowful adventure, avenge her son's death." The words
"greedy," "gallows," "grim," and "sorrowful" all support the notion that Grendel's mother is
an evil, violent beast instead of a sympathetic albeit mentally unstable mother.
The most telling passage of Grendel's mother's characterization is in the description
of her strength. The narrator makes an interesting gender comparison in line 1282:
Wees se gryre Icessa
efne swa micle swa bid m<egpa cr<eft,
wiggryre wifes, be wcepnedmen,
ponne heoru bunden, hamere gepuren,
sweord swatefah swin ofer helme
ecgum dyhttig andweard scirefi.
A woman inciting battle is not normal in this culture, so we are given this analysis of just
how powerful Grendel's mother is. Donaldson follows the words carefully: "The attack was
the less terrible by just so much as is the strength of women, the war-terror of a wife, less
than an armed man's when a hard blade, forge-hammered, a sword shining with blood,
good of its edges, cuts the stout boar on a helmet opposite." The logic is hard to follow,
the sentence is awkward, and we are not sure how deadly the "war- terror of a wife" actually
is. Heaney unravels this mess:
Her onslaught was less
only by as much as an amazon warrior's
strength is less than an armed man's
when the hefted sword, its hammered edge
and gleaming blade slathered in blood,
razes the sturdy boar-ridge off a helmet.
Heaney changes the "war- terror of a wife" into the "amazon warrior's strength," making the
reference clear and also making Grendel's mother's actions admirable. The reference to an
amazon, a renowned woman warrior, has more heft that a wife, a woman who is defined by
her husband. Although the reference is not historical, we understand instantly the sense of
the lines. Heaney's mother is a strong warrior; Donaldson's, once a reader can make sense
of his sentence, is a wife who may be forced into battle. The mention of a wife also
reminds the reader that Grendel's mother is a descendent of Cain, reestablishing her
When Grendel's mother is found in the hall, her egress is dramatic. She cannot
fight all of the men in the hall. Donaldson's translation is informative but removed from
the situation: "She was in haste, would be gone out from there, protect her life after she
was discovered." Heaney's translation is much more dramatic, making the reader feel her
fright and heightening the action:
The hell-dam was in panic, desperate to get out,
In mortal terror the moment she was found.
"Panic," desperation, and "mortal terror" create a sense of tension in which we become
sympathetic for Grendel's mother's position. She is characterized by Heaney as a woman
with feelings, even though he continues to call her a "hell-dam" in order to preserve her
role as an opponent to Beowulf.
Grendel's mother must be fantastical in some way as one of Beowulf s three non-
human opponents, but it is clear that Grendel's mother is also the tragic woman archetype
of medieval times. We cannot dismiss her as a non-female character. We feel a sympathy
for her that we do not feel for either Grendel or the dragon. A translator must walk the
difficult line of keeping her a monster while at the same time providing a sense of sympathy
for the reader.
Seamus Heaney's dynamic equivalence translation of Beowulf 'is full of figurative
language and connotation that hints at possibilities of meaning a literal translation
overlooks. A poem is the condensation of wisdom and truths that need to be unpacked; a
poem is never literal; an intuitive sense of language is more valuable to this task than a
historian's catalogue of facts and analysis.
Harold Bloom's theory of poets' development in The Anxiety of Influence therefore
applies to the translations of a poem as well as to original poetry. Bloom posits that poets
undergo a kind of psychological transformation due to a misreading of and rejection of the
influence of previous poets:
Poetic influence — when it involves two strong, authentic poets — always
proceeds by a misreading of the prior poet, an act of creative correction that
is actually and necessarily a misinterpretation. The history of fruitful poetic
influence, which is to say the main tradition of Western poetry since the
Renaissance, is a history of anxiety and self-saving caricature, of distortion,
of perverse, willful revisionism without which modern poetry as such could
not exist. (30)
The "willful revisionism" of a previous poet is akin to Freud's Oedipus conflict: it is a
struggle to transume or, in Oedipal terms, kill a previous poet. Bloom uses the term
"misprision" to describe a defensive misinterpretation of an older poet, also called
"clinamen," a resulting "swerving away" due to a revisionary misreading of the predecessor.
A poet creatively misreads the poetry of a predecessor and wants to avoid the influence of
this poetry, so he or she "swerves away" from it, moving against the pressure of the past.
Thus, any work of poetry cannot be seen as wholly original or independent; all poetry is
connected to other poetry, even if it is reactionary.
Bloom's theory actually may apply better to translators of Beowulf than it does to
poets. Translators engage in creative recreation and their work can be considered a form of
art. In the case of Beowulf, there have been so many translations that no one can work in a
vacuum; each translator reacts to or against previous translators. Since they speak copiously
about their process and philosophy, we know who and what they are reacting against —
from whom or what they are "swerving away." As previously noted in Chapter IV,
translators always justify their work. They explain why they are taking a different path than
others and why their choices best suit Beowulf. What is more complicated about translators
than poets is that sometimes there is misreading of previous translations, and sometimes
there is misreading of the original text, or both.
So Bloom's theory applies seamlessly to the multitude of translations of Beowulf.
The first translators of the poem were historians in universities, because they were the only
ones with the access and impetus to work with this one arcane manuscript accidentally
found in a private library, bound together with other Anglo-Saxon texts. John M. Kemble
had no model for translation and his purpose was to literally reproduce the poem's diction,
syntax, and storyline into modern English in prose. So focused was he on the correct
diction that he began a cursory dictionary. His became the prototype translation and other
historians followed suit. It is important to remember that English and literature as an
academic discipline was just coming into existence: at Cambridge, where Kemble was a
historian, English Literature as an academic discipline was not accepted until the early 20
century; literature was for women and the lower classes, not for educated men (Eagleton
27). Beowulfwould not have been studied in any other discipline in Kemble's time, and
without the historians, the text would probably still be in some dusty archive.
The formal equivalence translations are indeed a "misprision," a willful misreading,
because the interest and purpose of the translators did not include literary studies. Kemble
and the historian translators that followed him read Beowulf 'for historical elements that
Harold Bloom edited hundreds of anthologies, including one on Beowulf
would give insight into the medieval age and the Germanic peoples. They misread the
word goldhroden by simplifying it to mean merely gold-adorned, when clearly the word
implies the authority and power of a queen as represented by the gold she owned and
displayed on her person. Hildeburh was described as an ides geomuru, a mournful woman,
but the phrase is clearly an understatement to emphasize the horrors of a woman in the
position of a peace-weaver, and she was not just any woman but a famous queen. The
formal equivalence translators undervalued and underestimated the text as literature,
seeking to pinpoint facts about Hygelac's life and disregarding the rest. They swerved away
from the poem as a work of art and made it into a text to be studied and translated as an
When new translators began to take an interest in translating Beowulf 'in the second
half of the 20 century, they in turn "swerved away" from the formal equivalence
translation of the academics in favor of the freedom of dynamic equivalence translation.
They needed the space to address goldhroden as a concept and not just a word, which could
only happen by eschewing word-for-word and line-by-line translating. Edwin Morgan and
Seamus Heaney brought the poem to life in a way that might have delighted Tolkien. In
"swerving away" from the more academic translations of previous decades, dynamic
equivalence translators have recreated Beowulf as a work of literary art that is enjoyable for
the modern reader. They recognize that the poem has the beauty and relevance to capture
the modern imagination. This second "swerving away" was not due to "misprision,"
however — the new translators did not creatively misread previous versions, because there
really is no misreading of something so literal and concrete. Instead, dynamic equivalence
translators intended to bring to life a masterful poem for today's readers by loosening the
firm grip on strict adherence to words and lines. Seamus Heaney's success, the fact that his
translation was a bestseller, meaning his book reached a large audience, is a strong indicator
that dynamic equivalence translation works to open up an arcane poem for the enjoyment
of a non-scholar audience.
Bloom's theory of influence was meant for poets, and although it clearly applies to
translators as well, it is interesting to note that most dynamic equivalence translators are
poets. The formal equivalence translators were necessarily academic historians, since
Beowulf could only be read in the original Anglo-Saxon by those in academia. Academic
focus on the history and the grammar of the story was of paramount importance; their
audience was others in academia that wished to study the poem, and formal equivalence
translations fulfilled this purpose. After a few hundred years, though, formal equivalence
translations were nothing new. Technology makes literature more accessible for a general
audience, and a general audience will not suffer footnotes; a literal Beowulf 'is dry and
unappealing, oftentimes incomprehensible. The purpose of the poets was to work with the
language to create translations accessible to a large readership, and they were very
successful. The consequence of such dynamic equivalence translations is a reader's
experience of the poem that is akin to the original audience; the lines of poetry are
beautiful, the rhythm is mesmerizing, and the queens are interesting characters. I would
argue that poet translators, because of their experience with the art of creating poetry,
create translations of Beowulf that are not only more accurate in an experiential sense but
also more alive and relevant to today's readership.
People have been fascinated by Beowulf 'for hundreds of years now: the story was an
oral tale from a Germanic culture that was repeated and popular enough to travel to
England, where it was Christianized and written down by a scribe. The manuscript was
considered interesting enough to be bound together with other Anglo-Saxon works, and
when discovered in Robert Bruce Cotton's library, was removed to London for
safekeeping. Scholars began to translate passages in German and English, and John
Kemble translated it in full in 1833, and people have been reading and translating it ever
since. The poem has lasted because it is relevant; the tale explains what it is to be human,
what is of import in the human existence, examining bravery and heroism, loyalty, tragedy
if losing loved ones, facing fears, and living up to responsibilities in an honorable way.
Such themes are presented in beautiful and powerful language. The historical curiosity of
the story and the manuscript itself only adds to Beowulf s mystique.
1 The "safekeeping" wasn't so safe, since the manuscript was singed in a fire.
2 At Oxford University, students are still required to read the poem in the original Anglo-
Saxon, a curriculum requirement much criticized in recent years.
Although each generation has had its own preferred translation, we will never be
satisfied with one authoritative version because our culture, the culture of the receiving
readership, is constantly in flux. Norton's choice of translators is the perfect example:
Donaldson's dry prose was studied for years, to be supplanted by Heaney's version, since we
came to appreciate the literary aspect of the poem more than the scholarly aspect. Beowulf
will continue to be translated, as it should be, in order to keep the text alive. Howell
Some few (translators) will always have the chutzpah to think they have
enough poetic talent to render the original into Modern English verse. And
Beowulf will go on being newly translated for the foreseeable future.
The "chutzpah" to continue to work with Anglo-Saxon poetry seem to me a positive
prospect — each generation must make the poem their own in order to keep the
conversation going, in order to make the words from a dusty manuscript come alive, in
order to keep the word-hord unlocked. Otherwise, Beowulf dies, and the heroic tale is over.
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APPENDIX A. 1.
BEOWULF LINES 612-641
Eode Wealhbeow foro,
cwen Hroogares, cynna gemyndig,
grette goldhroden guman on healle,
ond J?a freolic wif
baed hine blione
symbel ond seleful,
Ymbeode ba ides Helminga
dugube ond geogobe dad aeghwylcne,
sincfato sealde, obbaet sad alamp
act baere beorbege,
He on lust gebeah
\>xt hio Beowulfe,
grette Geata leod,
))xt heo on aenigne
ond ba gyddode gube gefysed;
Beowulf mabelode, beam Ecgbeowes:
"Ic bst hogode, ba ic on holm gestah.
mid minra secga gedriht,
baes oe hire se willa gelamp
He baet ful gebeah,
baet ic anunga
oboe on wael crunge,
Ic gefremman sceal
eorlic ellen, oJ)<5e endedasg
on J?isse meoduhealle minne gebidan."
oam wife J?a word wel licodon,
gilpcwide Geates; eode goldhroden
freolicu folccwen to hire frean sittan.
BEOWULF LINES 612-641
E. TALBOT DONALDSON TRANSLATION p. 12-13
...Wealhtheow came forth, Hroogar's queen, mindful of custom, gold-adorned, greeted the
men in the hall; and the noble woman offered the cup first to the keeper of the land of the
East-Danes, bade him be glad at the beer-drinking, beloved of the people. In joy he
partook of feast and hall-cup, king famous for victories. Then the woman of the Helmings
went about to each one of the retainers, young and old, offered to them the costly cup,
until the time came that she brought the mead-bowl to Beowulf, the ring-adorned queen,
mature of mind. Sure of speech she greeted the man of the Geats, thanked God that her
wish was fulfilled, that she might trust in some man for help against deadly
deeds... (Bewoulf speaks)... These words were well-pleasing to the woman, the boast of the
Geat. Gold-adorned, the noble folk-queen went to sit by her lord.
BEOWULF LINES 612-641
SEAMUS HEANEY TRANSLATION p. 41-42
and the crowd was happy. Wealhtheow came in,
Hroogar's queen, observing the courtesies.
adorned in her gold, she graciously saluted
the men in hall, then handed the cup
first to Hroogar, their homeland's guardian,
urging him to drink deep and enjoy it
because he was dear to them. And he drank it down
like the warlord he was, with festive cheer.
so the Helmings woman went on her rounds,
queenly and dignified, decked out in rings,
offering the goblet to all ranks,
treating the household and the assembled troop
until it was Beowulf s turn to take t from her hand.
With measured words she welcomed the Geat
and thanked God for granting her wish
that a deliverer she could believe in would arrive
to ease their afflictions. He accepted the cup
This formal boast by Beowulf the Geat
pleased the lady well and she went to sit
by Hroogar, regal and arrayed with gold.
BEOWULF LINES 1162-1191
win of wunderfatum. J?a cwom Wealhbeo foro
gan under gyldnum beage, bser ba godan twegen
sseton suhtergefxderan; ba gyt wss hiera sib setgxdere,
xghwylc oorum trywe. Swylce baer Unferjj byle
act fotum szet frean Scyldinga; gehwylc hiora his ferhbe treowde,
bset he hasfde mod micel, beah be he his magum nacre
arfasst act ecga gelacum. Sprsc oa ides Scyldinga:
"Onfoh bissum fulle, freodrihten min,
sinces brytta! bu on sadum wes,
goldwine gumena, ond to Geatum sprsc
mildum wordum, swa sceal man don.
Beo wio Geatas glasd, geofena gemyndig,
nean ond feorran bu nu hafast.
Me man ssgde baet bu oe for sunu wolde
hererinc habban. Heorot is gefadsod,
beahsele beorhta; bruc benden bu mote
manigra medo, ond binum magum laef
folc ond rice, bonne ou foro scyle
metodsceaft seon. Ic minne can
glasdne Hrobulf, bast he ba geogooe wile
arum healdan, gyf bu xr Jjonne he,
wine Scildinga, worold oflaetest;
wene ic bart he mid gode gyldan wille
uncran eaferan, gif he bast eal gemon,
hwaet wit to willan ond to woromyndum
umborwesendum zer arna gefremedon."
Hwearf ba bi bence bser hyre byre waeron,
Hreoric ond Hroomund, ond hadeba beam,
giogoo aetgsdere; baer se goda sast,
Beowulf Geata, be baem gebroorum twxm.
BEOWULF LINES 1162-1191
E.TALBOT DONALDSON TRANSLATION P. 21
...Then Wealhtheow came forth to walk under gold crown to where the good men sat,
nephew and uncle: their friendship was then still unbroken, each true to the other ... Then
the woman of the Scyldings spoke:
"Take this cup my noble lord, giver of treasure. Be glad, gold-friend of warriors,
and speak to the Geats with mild words, as a man ought to do. Be gracious to the Geats,
mindful of gifts [which] you now have from near and far. They have told me that you
would have the warrior for your son. Heorot is purged, the bright ring-hall. Enjoy while
you may many rewards, and leave your kinsmen folk and kingdom when you must go forth
to look on the Ruler's decree. I know my gracious Hrothulf, that he will hold the young
warriors in honor if you, friend of the Scyldings, leave the world before him. I think he
will repay our son with good if he remembers all the favors we did to his pleasure and
honor when he was a child."
Then she turned to the bench where her sons were, Hrethic and Hrothmund, and
the sons of the warriors, young men together. There sat the good man Beowulf of the
Geats beside the two brothers.
The cup was borne to him and welcome offered in friendly words to him,
BEOWULF LINES 1162-1191
SEAMUS HEANEY TRANSLATION P. 83-85
with wine in splendid jugs, and Wealhtheow came to sit
in her gold crown between two good men,
uncle and nephew, each one of whom
still trusted the other; and the forthright Unferth,
admired by all for his mind and courage
although under a cloud for killing his brothers,
reclined near the kind.
The queen spoke:
"Enjoy this drink, my most generous lord;
raise up your goblet, entertain the Geats
duly and gently, discourse with them,
be open-handed, happy and fond.
Relish their company, but recollect as well
Of all the boons that have been bestowed on you.
The bright court of Heorot has been cleansed
And now the word is you want to adopt
This warrior as a son. So, while you may,
Bask in your fortune, and then bequeath
Kingdom and nation to your kith and kin,
Before your decease. I am certain of Hrothulf.
He is noble and will use the young ones well.
He will not let you down. Should you die before him,
He will treat our children truly and fairly.
He will honour, I am sure, our two sons,
Repay them in kind when he recollects
All the good things we gave him once,
The favour and respect he found in his childhood."
She turned then to the bench where her boys sat,
Hrethic and Hrothmund, with other nobles' sons,
All the youth together; and that good man,
Beowulf the Geat, sat between the brothers.
The cup was carried to him, kind words
BEOWULF LINES 1215-1232
Wealhoeo mabelode, heo fore bxm werede spraec:
"Bruc oisses beages, Beowulf leofa,
hyse, mid hade, ond bisses hrsgles neot,
beodgestreona, ond gebeoh tela,
cen bee mid crasfte ond byssum cnyhtum wes
lara lioe; ic be bass lean geman.
Hafast bu gefered bast oe feor ond neah
ealne wideferhb weras ehtigao,
efne swa side swa sx bebugeo,
windgeard, weallas. Wes benden bu lifige,
sebeling, eadig. Ic be an tela
sincgestreona. Beo bu suna minum
dsedum gedefe, dreamhealdende.
Her is seghwylc eorl obrum getrywe,
modes milde, mandrihtne hold;
begnas syndon gebwzere, beod ealgearo,
druncne dryhtguman doo swa ic bidde."
Eode ba to setle.
BEOWULF LINES 1215-1232
E. TALBOT DONALDSON TRANSLATION P. 22
...Wealhtheow spoke, before the company she said to him: "Wear this ring, beloved
Beowulf, young man, with good luck, and make use of this mail-shirt from the people's
treasure, and prosper well; make yourself known with your might, and be kind of counsel
to these boys: I shall remember to reward you for that. You have brought it about that, far
and near, for a long time all men shall praise you, as wide as the sea surrounds the shores,
home of the winds. While you live, prince, be prosperous. I wish you well of your
treasure. Much favored one, be kind of deeds to my son. Here each earl is true to other,
mild of heart, loyal to his lord; the thanes are at one, the people obedient, the retainers
cheered with drink do as I bid."
Then she walked to her seat.
BEOWULF LINES 1215-1232
SEAMUS HEANEY TRANSLATION P. 85-87
Then Wealhtheow pronounced in the presence of the company:
"Take delight in this torque, dear Beowulf,
wear it for luck and wear also this mail
from our people's armoury: may you prosper in them!
Be acclaimed for strength, for kindly guidance
to these two boys, and your bounty will be sure.
You have won renown: you are known to all men
far and near, now and forever.
Your sway is wide as the wind's home,
as the sea around cliffs. And so, my prince,
I wish you a lifetime's luck and blessings
to enjoy this treasure. Treat my sons
with tender care, be strong and kind.
Here each comrade is true to the other,
loyal to lord, loving in spirit.
The thanes have one purpose, the people are ready:
having drunk and pledged, the ranks do as I bid."
She moved then to her place.
BEOWULF LINES 2020-2069
Hwilum for dugufte dohtor Hroogares
eorlum on ende ealuwsege bzer;
ba ic Freaware fletsittende
nemnan hyrde, bxr hio naegled sine
hadeoum sealde. Sio gehaten is,
geong, goldhroden, gladum suna Frodan;
hafab baes geworden wine Scyldinga,
rices hyrde, ond bast rzed talao,
baet he mid oy wife wadfxhoa dael,
sscca gesette. Oft seldan hwsr
arfter leodhryre lytle hwile
bongar bugeo, beah seo bryd duge!
him se ooer bonan
losao lifigende, con him land geare.
bonne bioo abrocene on ba healfe
aosweord eorla; sybban Ingelde
weallao wadnioas, ond him wiflufan
arfter cearwadmum colran weoroao.
by ic Heaftobeardna hyldo ne telge,
dryhtsibbe dad Denum unfecne,
BEOWULF LINES 2020-2069
E. TALBOT DONALDSON TRANSLATION P. 34
...At times Hrothgar's daughter bore the ale-cup to the retainers, to the earls throughout
the hall. I heard hall-sitters name her Freawaru when she offered the studded cup to
warriors. Young and gold-adorned, she is promised to the fair son of Froda. That has
seemed good to the lord of the Scyldings, the guardian of the kingdom, and he believes of
this plan that he may, with this woman, settle their portion of deadly feuds, of quarrels.
Yet most often after the fall of any prince in any nation the deadly spear rests but a little
while, even though the bride is good.
...Then on both sides the oath of the earls will be broken; then deadly hate will well up in
Ingeld, and his wife-love after the surging of sorrows will become cooler.
BEOWULF LINES 2020-2069
SEAMUS HEANRY TRANSLATION p. 139
Sometimes Hrothgar's daughter distributed
ale to older ranks, in order on the benches:
I heard the company call her Freawaru
as she made her rounds, presenting men
with the gem-studded bowl, young bride-to-be
to the gracious Ingeld, in her gold-trimmed attire.
The friend of the Shieldings favours her betrothal:
the guardian of the kingdom sees good in it
and hopes this woman will heal old wounds
and grievous feuds.
But generally the spear
is prompt to retaliate when a prince is killed,
no matter how admirable the bride may be.
Then on both sides the oath-bound lords
will break the peace, a passionate hate
will build up in Ingeld and love for his bride
will falter in him as the feud rankles.
BEOWULF LINES 1069-1094
hadeo Healfdena, Hnarf Scyldinga,
in Freswade feallan scolde.
Ne huru Hildeburh herian borfte
Eotena treowe; unsynnum wearo
beloren leofum xt bam lindplegan,
bearnum ond broorum; hie on gebyrd hruron,
gare wunde. bast wa:s geomuru ides!
Nalles holinga Hoces dohtor
meotodsceaft bemearn, syboan morgen com,
oa heo under swegle geseon meahte
morborbealo maga, \>xr heo xr mxste heold
bset he ne mehte
ne ba wealafe
baet hie him ooer flet
healle ond heahsetl,
wio Eotena beam
ond xt feohgyftum
efne swa swioe
Wig ealle fornam
nemne feaum anum,
on bsem meoelstede
ac hig him gebingo budon,
bast hie healfre geweald
swa he Fresena cyn
BEOWULF LINES 1069-1094
E. TALBOT DONALDSON TRANSLATION p. 20
The hero of the Half-Danes, Hnaef of the Scyldings, was fated to fall on the Frisian
battlefield. And no need had Hildeburh to praise the good faith of the Jutes: blameless she
was deprived of her dear ones at the shield-play, of son and brother; wounded by spears
they fell to their fate. That was a mournful woman. Not without cause did Hoe's daughter
lament the decree of destiny when morning came and she might see, under the sky, the
slaughter of kinsmen — where before she had the greatest of world's joy...
The funeral pyre was made ready and gold brought up from the hoard... Then
Hildeburh bade give her own son to the flames on Hnaef s pyre, burn his blood vessels, put
him in the fire at the shoulder of his uncle. The woman mourned, sang her lament. The
warrior took his place.
...Then was the hall reddened from foes' bodies, and thus Finn slain, the king in his
company, and the queen taken.... They brought the noble woman on the sea-journey to the
Danes, led her to her people.
BEOWULF LINES 1069-1094
SEAMUS HEANEY TRANSLATION p. 71
had little cause
to credit the Jutes:
son and brother,
she lost them both
on the battlefield.
and blameless, they
foredoomed, cut down
and spear-gored. She,
the woman in shock,
waylaid by grief,
Hoe's daughter —
how could she not
lament her fate
when morning came
and the light broke
on her murdered dears?
A funeral pyre
Was then prepared,
brought out from the hoard.
ordered her own
be burnt with Hnaefs,
the flesh on his bones
to sputter and blaze
beside his uncle's.
The woman wailed
and sang keens,
the warrior went up.
Finn was cut down,
the queen brought away
the Shieldings could fins
inside Finn's walls —
the Frisian king's
gold collars and gemstones —
swept off the ship.
Over the sea-lanes then
back to Daneland
the warrior troop
bore that lady home.
BEOWULF LINES 1925-1957
Hygd swioe geong,
beah oe wintra lyt
nass hio hnah swa beah,
Mod bryoo wxg,
hrabe seoboan waes
Ne bio swylc cwenlic beaw
beah oe hio zenlicu sy,
Bold wxs betlic,
heah in healle,
ne to gneao gifa
fremu folces cwen,
Nsnig bast dorste
bast hire an dsges
ac him wadbende
baet hit sceadenmad
idese to efnanne,
Huru baet onhohsnode
ealodrincende ooer sasdan,
bset hio leodbealewa lass gefremede,
inwitnioa, syooan asrest wearo
gyfen goldhroden geongum cempan
xoelum diore, syooan hio Offan flet
ofer fealone flod be fkder lare
sioe gesohte; oasr hio syooan well
in gumstole, gode, mzere,
lifgesceafta lifigende breac,
hiold heahlufan wio hadeba brego,
ealles moncynnes mine gefrsege
Jjone selestan bi saem tweonum,
BEOWULF LINES 1925-1957
E. TALBOT DONALDSON TRANSLATION p. 33
The building was splendid, its king most valiant, set high in the hall, Hygd most
youthful, wise and well-taught, though she had lived within the castle walls few winters,
daughter of Haereth. For she was not niggardly, not too sparing of gifts to the men of the
Geats, of treasures. Modthryth, good folk-queen, did dreadful deeds [in her youth] : no
bold one among her retainers dared venture — except her great lord — to set his eyes on her
in daylight, but [if he did] he should reckon deadly bonds prepared for him, arresting
hands: that straightway after his seizure the sword awaited him, that the patterned blade
must settle it, make known its death-evil. Such is no queenly custom for a woman to
practice, thought she is peerless — that one who weaves peace should take away the life of a
beloved man after pretended injury. However the kinsman of Hemming stopped that: ale-
drinkers gave another account, said that she did less harm to the people, fewer injuries,
after she was given, gold-adorned, to the young warrior, the beloved noble, when by her
father's teaching sought Offa's hall in a voyage over the pale sea. There on the throne she
was afterwards famous for generosity, while living made use of her life, held high love
toward the lord of warriors, [who was] of all mankind the best, as I have heard, between
the seas of the races of men.
BEOWULF LINES 1925-1957
SEAMUS HEANEY TRANSLATION p. 131-133
The building was magnificent, the king majestic,
ensconced in his hall; and although Hygd, his queen,
was young, a few short years at court,
her mind was thoughtful and her manners sure.
Hareth's daughter behaved generously
and stinted nothing when she distributed
bounty to the Geats.
Great Queen Modthryth
perpetrated terrible wrongs.
If any retainer ever made bold
to look her in the face, if an eye not her lord's
stared at her directly during daylight,
the outcome was sealed: he was kept bound
in hand-tightened shackles, racked, tortured
until doom was pronounced — death by the sword,
slash of blade, blood-gush and death qualms
in an evil display. Even a queen
outstanding in beauty must not overstep like that.
A queen should weave peace, not punish the innocent
with loss of life for imagined insults.
But Hemming's kinsman put a halt to her ways
and drinkers round the table has another tale:
she was less of a bane to people's lives,
less cruel-minded, after she was married
to the brave Offa, a bride arrayed
in her gold finery, given away
by a caring father, ferried to her young prince
over dim seas. In days to come
she would grace the throne and grow famous
for her good deeds and conduct of life,
her high devotion to the hero king
who was the best king, it has been said,
between the two seas or anywhere else
on the face of the earth. Offa was honoured
BEOWULF LINES 2369-2372
xr him Hygd gebead hord ond rice,
beagas ond bregostol, bearne ne truwode
baet he wio adfylcum ebelstolas
healdan cuoe, oa wass Hygelac dead.
BEOWULF LINES 2369-2372
E. TALBOT DONALDSON TRANSLATION p. 40
...There Hygd offered him hoard and kingdom, rings and a prince's throne. She had no
trust in her son, that he could hold his native throne against foreigners now that Hygelac
BEOWULF LINES 2369-2372
SEAMUS HEANEY TRANSLATION p. 161
There Hygd offered him throne and authority
as lord of the ring-hoard: with Hygelac dead,
she had no belief in her son's ability
to defend their homeland against foreign invaders.
BEOWULF LINES 1255-1295
baet gesyne wear)?,
lifde setter labum,
se be wxteregesan
bzette wrecend ba gyt
siboan Cain wearo
he ba fag gewat,
bser him aglaeca
hwsebre he gemunde maegenes strenge
gimfeste gife oe him god sealde,
ond him to anwaldan are gelyfde,
banon woe fela
wses bsera Grendel sum,
se art Heorote fand
frofre ond fultum;
gehnaegde helle gast.
gifre ond galgmod,
Com ba to Heorote
oy he bone feond ofercwom,
ba he hean gewat,
ond his modor ba gyt,
sunu dea& wrecan.
, oser Hringdene
geond bast sadd swarfun. ba oasr sona wearo
edhwyrft eorlum, siboan inne fealh
Grendles modor. Wars se gryre larssa
efne swa micle swa bio masgba crarft,
wiggryre wifes, be warpnedmen,
bonne heoru bunden, hamere geburen,
sweord swate fah swin ofer helme
ecgum dyhttig andweard scireo.
ba wars on healle heardecg togen
sweord ofer setlum, sidrand manig
hafen handa fzest; helm ne gemunde,
byrnan side, ba hine se broga angeat.
Heo wars on ofste, wolde ut banon,
feore beorgan, ba heo onfunden wars.
Hraoe heo arbelinga anne harfde
farste befangen, ba heo to fenne gang.
BEOWULF LINES 1255-1295
DONALDSON TRANSLATION P. 23
It came to be seen, wide-known to men, that after the bitter battle an avenger still lived for
an evil space: Grendel's mother, woman, monster-wife, was mindful of her misery, she who
had to dwell in the terrible water, the cold currents, after Cain became sword-slayer of his
only brother, his own father's son. Then Cain went as an outlaw to flee the cheerful life of
men, marked for his murder, held to the wasteland. From him sprang many a devil sent by
fate. Grendel was one of them, hateful outcast who at Heorot found a waking man waiting
for his warfare. There the monster had laid hold on him, but he was mindful of the great
strength, the large gift God had given him, and relied on the Almighty for favor, comfort
and help. By that he overcame the foe, subdued the hell-spirit. Then he went off
wretched, bereft of joy, to seek his dying place, enemy of mankind. And his mother, still
greedy and gallows-grim, would go on a sorrowful adventure, avenge her son's death.
Then she came to Heorot where the Ring-Danes slept throughout the hall. Then
change came quickly to the earls there, when Grendel's mother made her way in. The
attack was the less terrible by just so much as is the strength of women, the war-terror of a
wife, less than an armed man's when a hard blade, forge-hammered, a sword shining with
blood, good of its edges, cuts the stout boar on a helmet opposite. Then in the hall was
hard-edged sword raised from the seat, many a broad shield lifted firmly in hand: none
thought of helmet, of wide mail-shirt, when the terror seized him. She was in haste,
would be gone out from there, protect her life after she was discovered. Swiftly she had
taken fast hold on one of the nobles, then she went to the fen.
BEOWULF LINES 1255-1295
HEANEY TRANSLATION P. 89
death after his crimes. Then it became clear,
obvious to everyone once the fight was over,
that an avenger lurked and was still alive,
grimly biding time. Grendel's mother,
monstrous hell-bride, brooded over her wrongs.
She had been forced down into fearful waters,
the cold depths, after Cain had killed
his father's son, felled his own
brother with a sword. Branded an outlaw,
marked by having murdered, he moved into the wilds,
shunned company and joy. And from Vain there sprang
misbegotten spirits, among the Grendel,
the banished and accursed, due to come to grips
with that watcher in Heorot waiting to do battle.
The monster wrenched and wrestled with him
but Beowulf was mindful of his mighty strength,
the wondrous gifts God had showered on him:
He relied for help on the Lord of them All,
on His care and favour. So he overcame the foe,
brought down the hell-brute. Broken and bowed,
outcast from all sweetness, the enemy of mankind
made for his death-den. But now his mother
had sallied forth on a savage journey,
grief-racked and ravenous, desperate for revenge.
She came to Heorot. There, inside the hall,
Danes lay asleep, earls who would soon endure
a great reversal, once Grendel's mother
attacked and entered. Her onslaught was less
only by as much as an amazon warrior's
strength is less than an armed man's
when the hefted sword, its hammered edge
and gleaming blade slathered in blood,
razes the sturdy boar-ridge off a helmet.
Then in the hall, hard-honed swords
were grabbed from the bench, many a broad shield
lifted and braced; there was little thought of helmets
or woven mail when they woke in terror.
The hell-dam was in panic, desperate to get out,
in mortal terror the moment she was found.
She had pounced and taken one of the retainers
in a tight hold, then headed for the fen.